Saturday, September 29, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON ONE EP. 4: THE WAY THEY DO THE THINGS THEY DO




I'm finally checking in with my last words on the "Halloween Part 2" episode of American Horror Story! Simon Abrams and I will finally be getting to episode five on Monday, in our march toward Halloween (and surely now beyond). But for now, let us return to the Murder House...

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Simon,


As far as delays to our schedule of analysis and discussion go, you’ve got the Toronto Film Festival (and soon, the NYFF), and I’ve got--- Well, certainly not the Toronto Film Festival or anything like it. But I certainly appreciate your patience and that of Our Dear Readers as we gear down on “Halloween Part 2” and prep for “Piggy Piggy,” one of the episodes in the American Horror Story that I initially missed on my first pass through the Murder House.


I’m intrigued by the thoughts that you stirred re the motivations, or even the emotional state of the ghosts in this show. In most haunted scenarios ghosts are most typically seen as tethered either by revenge or some other portfolio of uncompleted business back on Earth, or perhaps even the unconscious desires of the living to maintain their connection to a past that has been somehow, and unjustly, taken from them. I hadn’t really tumbled on this before seeing this episode again, and considering Nora and the Dead Breakfast Club, it does seem, at least for the moment, that what may be going on is that it is the dead who refuse to give up their claim on the living. The notion that they are free to walk on Halloween, and therefore free to interact, that is, directly change the trajectory and circumstances of the lives of those who are not (yet) dead, is a conceit that I like a lot—it gives weight and meaning to the occasion most Americans think of as a fun, superficial chance to flirt with harmless versions of horrific imagery we don’t have much use for in real life. (Unless we’re watching horror movies and shows like American Horror Story, of course.) 


But within the context of this episode, and even, really, the rest of the episodes, the writers don’t really use it to the end of fleshing out a really novel take on the possible function of ghosts. As we will see again in regard to the character of Hayden, the house and its influences, whatever and wherever their origins might be, permit these kinds of interactions on a daily basis—they just have to occur on the grounds. (We knew this as soon as we saw what happened to Leah in the basement in the pilot episode.) But it seems odd that there would be such emphasis on this walking-among-the-living conceit, and yet the result of it, in terms of what we see as a result of their mingling with the world—Nora’s visit to her mother, Chad and Patrick’s implied relationship shift, and even the DBC’s confrontation with Tate— is that they remain primarily influencers, unable even on this day to actually do much on the physical plane beyond be far less coy about their own presence that they have to be in their less corporeal incarnations. 


As evidenced by certain events I’m thinking of that have yet to occur, their actions certainly can have consequences, but again those consequences are directly tied to the house and its existence as a kind of ghostly fish bowl, the living interlopers buffeted by the swirling currents of the whims and rages of the undead. The dead are far more interested in the living than the reverse—curiosity about what’s behind that door or causing the curtain to move is not something this show much indulges. No, the dead are attracted to what the living have to offer, or perhaps more what is dangled in front of them in that house which they can no longer really have, and that is an upsetting, motivating force. There is one element of this ghost story, yet to be revealed, which complicates this matter a bit, but it remains a story mainly about things unseen, unattainable that the dead desperately want to take with them, things that keep them clutching onto life, even with the knowledge that there really is no going back.




All of which makes me believe with greater conviction as we move through this first season that Murphy and Falchuk have perhaps not considered what compels the ghosts on Halloween, at least the ones with ties to the Murder House, as thoroughly as they might have. (Maybe they got confused, what with all the overlapping, interacting time lines; maybe they just aren’t such clear thinkers to begin with.) The concept of the show is the house’s hold over them, the permission it gives them to be clever, harsh manipulators of those inside it who still draw breath. This is why the conceit behind the Halloween walk, intriguing though it is, doesn’t seem to draw real blood—it doesn’t really amount to much in terms of what the ghosts are able to accomplish on the outside. Even on the inside, Nora seems to be given less to direct action than hushed (subconscious) suggestion, and I think you’re right to presume that her motivations are to hasten her own agenda by couching it in terms that seem to have concerns outside of her own. (The second “failure” she says she will not permit is almost certainly not that of the Harmons’ marriage.) It’s going to take Hayden to really get the ball rolling in terms of testing the waters of just how much physical activity these ghosts can indulge in, if they choose to do so. But none of this does much to quell the growing suspicion that Murphy and Falchuk’s vision of the afterlife, as it applies to the occupants of the Murder House anyway, may be less consistent than previously assumed. (And for a night when the dead can do whatever they want, on the streets or wherever, it’s a much quieter, less chaotic night than I would have guessed!) The mangled and violated DBC are motivated by what usually spurs ghosts on—unfinished business, the desire to draw some sort of revenge on, or at least admission of guilt from a curiously repressed Tate. But for the moment the others remain, as you say, more cryptic in their intent.


One last item on “Halloween Part 2,” which I asked about before and which we discussed off-line, as it were, that I wanted to mention. I raised the question in my last post about who it was that was underneath Violet’s bed that reaches out for (and misses) her foot up in the bedroom, during Larry’s attempt to collect that $1,000 blackmail bill. As I said previously, it’s not Tate-- we see him outside; it’s not the Rubber Man—we see him inside; it’s not the Infantata—he/it is a basement dweller; and it sure isn’t Addy. You pointed out something I didn’t see clearly on my computer monitor—the burned flesh that gives away the identity of the creeper as Larry, and also that the knocking wasn’t heard at the same time as the hand comes reaching out toward Violet’s ankle. You attributed this to a simple lapse of time, and clearly (now) that’s what was intended. It’s the span of time that’s too tight here for me to accept that jump. That's a hell of a scamper from outside on the front porch and up (through a window?) into her bedroom in the amount of real time that separates the last knock we hear from the appearance of that hand. I don't buy it for a second, especially the way the sequence is edited-- her moving toward the stairs after just missing seeing the Rubber Man, and then a quick cut to her opening the door to her room, then the hand coming out from under the bed-- that Larry could reasonably make his way up there that quickly. He ain't dead, after all. And if he did get there that fast, why would he hide under the bed and make one weak grab, then nothing comes of it? And why is he reaching out for her from under the bed anyway? What was he going to do with her if he caught her? Dumb.


Okay, I’m off to watch the “Piggy Piggy” episode. I’ll check in with a recap and some initial thoughts on Monday. And by the way, not to be a shill for Fox Home Video or anything, but the DVD and Blu-ray sets for American Horror Story went on sale this past Tuesday. Halloween’s coming, for real, and so is season two of the show. I have not indulged in any of the teasers or hype for the upcoming season—I’d rather it hit me as cleanly as possible. But I will say that now more than ever, after having gone through the episodes the way we have so far, that I’m happier than ever that the powers that be thought it was a good idea to keep things fresh by starting from scratch on a new idea and new cast for the new season. Flaws and all, this kind of long-form take on the anthology show promises plenty of riches (and the inevitable attendant frustrations) yet to come.

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #3

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

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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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

APOLOGIES FROM THE MANAGEMENT



"It's still the same old story / A fight for love and glory / A case of do or die..."

Once again, I have to apologize for the delay in the posting of my continuing conversation with Simon Abrams and the "Piggy Piggy" episode of American Horror Story. It's a familiar refrain, all right, but it remains true that demands on my schedule in the world of paying work-- that is, the effort to keep a roof over my family's head, food in their stomachs and clothes on their backs-- are making it extremely difficult this week, more so than usual even, to maintain my prescribed writing goals. I'm trying not to moan too much about it, just put my head down and get the obligatory stuff done with so I can spend some time here. But I want to keep those of you who are interested in following this discussion, and anything else I find time to write about here at SLIFR during this taxing year, abreast of the situation and let you know that the project has not been abandoned or anything silly like that.

I remember back in the first three or four years of this blog how it was no big deal to stay up until 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 a.m. if necessary to get things written up and posted. My output then was far more prolific, and lots of people wondered how I managed to do it and maintain a waking, working schedule on top of that. (I was even going to school for two years in there somewhere.) Well, staying up all night was a big part of how I did it, and at 52 years of age, let's jut say that I'm much more of a morning person now than I ever used to be. I have not lessened my commitment to this blog-- I have several pieces in the hopper, awaiting the opportunity to be polished, as well as a new quiz that is near ready to go. (Remember the SLIFR quizzes? You know, the ones I haven't answered myself in a year or so?) It's easy to get swept up in a perhaps misapplied sense of guilt, of obligation regarding posting regularly, and I certainly have allowed that to happen with myself here in the past. I just want to let you (and myself) know that writing here is something I consider crucial, essential to my mental well-being and sense of fulfillment, and a privilege as well. I'm glad there are some people out there who continue to care whether or not there are new posts that pop up here, albeit much more occasionally than used to be the case. I thank you for hanging in there with me.

 The American Horror Story discussion will continue later this week. Look for it.


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Monday, September 17, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1, EP. 4: BRING OUT YOUR DEAD!



A new week means that Simon Abrams is ready to return to continue the discussion on American Horror Story's fourth episode before we take things further along the road. Welcome back, Simon!

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Heya, hiya, heya:

The Toronto Film Festival has finally concluded, and as I write this, I am waiting for my flight back to Ah-mer-ee-ka. So I figured now was as good a time as any to finally follow-up with my second post on “Halloween, Part 2.” ‘Bout time, right? Yeah, yeah, just don’t hit me, ok!

So, so, so, soooo… as I alluded to last time, one of the things I’m most struck by about “Halloween, Part 2” is the way it shows that past events re-integrating into the present. I don’t always get the reasons for this conceit, as in the way that Moira’s skimpy subplot resolves itself. But I did enjoy seeing the ghosts of the Murder House’s past either try to prevent the past from repeating itself or reluctantly accept that they can’t change anything.

For example, the ghost of Nora Montgomery pops up in the house and revives Ben. Nora tellingly says (because nobody can just do something and let that action speak for itself in this show), “I will not permit another failure in this house.” I’m unclear as to what specifically she means, but that’s usually the point of that kind of cryptic ghost-talk in this show: we know it means something but are not sure what beyond a point.

Still, this incident suggests, as in the silly subplot involving Chad the ghost “fluffer” (the sadly under-utilized Zachary Quinto, who had a much more satisfying part to play in “Halloween, Part 1”) and his boyfriend Patrick (Teddy Sears), that the past cannot help but repeat itself. In that sense: is Nora’s attempted intervention only speeding things along? Is she, in other words, only hastening the events she’s trying to prevent? I think so, and I think that’s what we’re meant to think, though admittedly “Halloween, Part 2” ends with Ben leaving the Murder House, making it easy to think that maybe Nora did effect change after all. Me, I don’t believe that, nope, nope. We’ve got seven episodes left, no way, nope, nope.

Anyway, this relates to Chad and Patrick’s unresolved issues from “Halloween, Part 1” in that the crux of their disagreement is Patrick’s inability to stop cheating on Chad even from beyond the graaaave. At the end of “Halloween, Part 2,” Patrick apologizes profusely and says that he “couldn’t help it.” Chad begrudgingly accepts this in that he doesn’t walk away from Patrick, or cause a scene, or break up with him, or anything. Admittedly, they’re ghosts, so there isn’t much point in breaking up with Patrick at this point. But still: if we’re to accept that on this one night, the dead can walk among the living, you’d think that their actions on that night can have consequences, too, ja?

So so so so sooo…yeah, a ghost break-up wouldn’t be that unreasonable, sez me. But it doesn’t happen, making it plain that Falchuk and Murphy want us to think, “Well, maybe the past’s influence on the present is immutable, or some shit.” It’s an interesting counter-plot point to Nora’s perceived intervention, but only in theory. I find Chad’s bathetic outbursts to be a little too shrill for my taste. Oh, and I generally don’t think re-inforcing the stereotype of the promiscuous gay man just so’s we can skimpily establish a rudimentary thematic parallel is that compelling. Just sayin’…

But yeah, what about Tate and his ghosts? They indirectly make us think that maybe characters can break the cycle, as the clich√© goes, and keep the past separate from the present. This is because Dead Breakfast Club can’t get Tate, the living, to acknowledge his responsibility for (or to?) the dead. But because Tate refuses to immediately accept the link between past and present, we the viewer leave the events of “Halloween, Part 2” thinking that maybe, as with the resolution of Ben’s story, the present need not be an over-determined repetition of the past’s mistakes. I tend to doubt that’s going to be the case once season one ends for several reasons, including the resurgence of the copy-cat killers in “Murder House.”

But but but but! Moira’s story-line with her mother gives me pause. Her mother dies and she still can’t find release. Both a literal release and a figurative one, obviously: Moira doesn’t disappear once her mom is gone. So now presumably we’re made to think that perhaps it’s not the living that can’t let go of the dead but…I dunno, vicey versey? What to make of this, Dennis? I’m not sure if the show’s writers have thought this far ahead, honestly, but I’m intrigued/stymied by the notion that maybe the dead remain among the living independent of the living’s projected desires. One of the reasons I like David Koepp’s Ghost Town is that it acknowledges that yes, the dead live with us for as long as we can’t let go of them. That’s a very simple but wise concept that I’m not sure Falchuk and Murphy subscribe to. Their ghosts seem to linger for the sake of some vengeful authorial third party’s desire to punish or judge AHS’s pro- and antagonists.

But what do you make of this reading, Dennis? Curious, as usual…

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

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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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

AFTER THE TRIUMPH OF YOUR BIRTH (2012)



“Happiness lies in the hope that happiness exists.”

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We find ourselves living in an age in which indie cinema is ostensibly flourishing, an age in which access to inexpensive video technology has ensured that anybody with a dream, a camera, a couple of credit cards and more than a couple of buddies willing to work cheap, who might also be able to furnish an apartment in which to shoot, can position themselves as the next Kevin Smith or Aaron Katz or Andrew Bujalski and make what might in some circles reasonably pass in 2012 as a movie. Ever since the cultural ascendance of festivals like Sundance and Slamdance and SXSW, among countless others, filmmakers have been churning out one visually perfunctory D.I.Y. dramedy and thematically outrageous horror movie after another, few nearly as edgy or accomplished as they seem to think they are. The result has been an emerging indie cinema in which festivals can end up looking and smelling like the same old factory models, only with a more visually degraded sausage than would have ever passed muster in the slick world of Hollywood filmmaking past being squeezed out the product end.

Even more distressing is the tendency of some filmmakers to treat American indie cinema as a proving ground, a stepping stone to bigger budgets and diminished opportunities for genuine self-expression. (“My film won the audience award this year, but what I really want to do is direct Green Lantern 2!”) Much fewer and farther between are the movies that hew only to the heartbeat of their filmmakers, regardless of audience expectations or previous formulas for success, the movies that feel when you’re watching them as if the filmmaker believed they had to be made, that his or her artistic survival were at stake.


Jim Akin’s After the Triumph of Your Birth (2012) is one such film. It's a work that recognizes the value and influence of the past but lives in a languid, pulsating present, its eyes forever glancing at and absorbing its surroundings in ways that make them seem at once intensely familiar and yet imbued with unexpected shadows and nuances and elements of surprise, and always looking further down the road with quizzical anticipation and yearning. Described by writer-filmmaker Kent Adamson as “a road movie on foot” and critic Jeremy Richey as “an elaborate puzzle box with a beating human heart in the middle,” ATTOYB fleshes out the journey of discovery of one Eli Willit, played by musician/actor Tom Dunne, whose effective and engaging presence, as Tony Dayoub smartly observes, bears a striking resemblance to that of Tom Noonan. Eli is a man with demons to spare and the aching desire to reconcile them with his thirst for independence and his questioning spirituality, and his seven-day journey from the Pearblossom Highway desert, over Mt. Baldy and westward to the Pacific Ocean in search of the sense of meaning that has eluded him his entire life will cause him to cross paths with a strange and unlikely cast of misfits and seekers, sometimes glancingly, often in ways that will mark him forever.



Dunne is joined by a capable roster of largely unfamiliar performers who dot the highways and bars and back roads and hostels along Eli’s journey, highlighted by Tessa Ferrer as Eva, a desperate, aimless woman who makes an unexpected emotional connection with Eli; burlesque performer Kristina Nekyia as a hobbled succubus who haunts Eli (and the film) and redefines the erotic possibilities of leg braces in a manner which both J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg would approve; and most compelling of all, young Dean Ogle as a 12-year-old boy who startles his music teacher to attention with the pained and soulful flagellations of the songs he writes and shows to her. (“God should give me nightmares,” he sings plaintively in one of the movie’s most chilling and memorable sequences.)

The conduit for much of the movie’s open spiritual questioning is the Answer Man, a angelic/demonic figure who most clearly recalls the sort of demonic chorus member Robert Blake embodied in Lost Highway. The Answer Man is made comparatively benign, yet still ominous flesh by ex-Possum Dixon member Rob Zabrecky, following closely on Eli’s heels for the duration of the movie, threatening him with portentous proclamations and temptations and prodding him into a constant state of existential upheaval, and he is the movie’s diciest conceit. Zabrecky often flirts with preciousness, occasionally tumbling over into it, and yet Akin still manages to weave the character as a compelling, mysterious thread throughout the film that binds it through its relatively phantasmagorical conclusion.


Unlike those blurry three-characters-and-a-futon generational dramas that permeate so much of indie film culture, cinephiles will luxuriate in Akin’s vision, which echoes eclectic inspiration from all corners of the most genuinely intellectual and emotionally independent cinema of the past four decades. (Akin served as his own cinematographer, and the movie, shot on a budget that wouldn’t pay for the shoestrings on a Joe Swanberg picture, looks absolutely gorgeous—Akin has a hell of an eye for fleetingly beautiful compositions and the poetry of a dusty back road.) And yet ATTOYB is the furthest thing from a shallow game of spot the references. Akin intends to draw meaning from the film style that occupies his line of sight, but those allusions are never an end in themselves. Instead, they blend into a rich, vibrant, yet never mannered tapestry of geographical sensitivity and rare observational eloquence—this is a vision of Los Angeles that at once seems alien and yet strangely familiar, urban and yet unexpectedly rural at times (there are a couple of lovely sequences where characters walk down what look like country paths, the horizon of the city barely, pointedly masked by the top of the frame). It’s as if the unsettled dreamer Robert Altman who fashioned the undulating high desert landscapes of Three Women decided to hit the road with Wim Wenders, Alex Cox, Don Siegel, Hal Hartley and Sergio Leone, and they all ended up wandering along the night-blackened, brush-entangled margins of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, where all the secrets and the answers the characters seek remain hidden just out of view. (One hopes if Los Angeles Plays Itself ever gets an update that Thom Andersen will devote some much-deserved space to this gorgeous, gritty, often diaphanous and ethereal film.)


Yet After the Triumph of Your Birth is also clearly a movie made by musicians, a movie of profound, fleeting beauty that glides and drifts and darts and sweeps to its own internal rhythms in the manner of a classically structured, lyrically slippery Leonard Cohen song, or a boundary-busting Radiohead experiment, or a regionally attuned Ry Cooder melody. It has the spirit of inquiry that only the best pop music, with its ability to be alarmingly direct and yet also plumb the inner workings of the heart in ways that often cannot be articulated, can respond to in kind. I use the plural “musicians” because Akin’s key creative collaborator is Maria Mckee, the celebrated Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who achieved initial fame as the leading light of the ‘80s band Lone Justice, and who also happens to be Akin’s wife. In addition to occupying a supporting role in the cast as a character whose spiritual despair provides one of the film’s central thematic support beams, Mckee and her director have woven a powerful musical accompaniment for the film that often blissfully derails the proceedings from dirt-encrusted, poetically enhanced realism into the realm of a full-on post-modern (to say nothing of post-MTV) musical. And of course it is music that courses most freely through the veins of the characters Akin and his able and fascinating cast have imagined; all are in one way or another performers along the gravel and asphalt paths of existence whose stymied hearts are best displayed while strumming, singing or dancing their lives away.

That quest for a sense of identity and order that so compels the people of After the Triumph of Your Birth is fundamentally illuminated by the bitter aftertaste of the film’s title. All this humanity swirling and flitting about the incandescent possibilities implied by the celebratory trajectory that accompanies every person’s messy entrance into the world must eventually give way to endless opportunities for disappointment, rejection, persecution, bittersweet reconciliation (if any) and, of course, death, the ultimate destination of any life. Which is not to say that the movie sourly rejects the joys inherent in life—hardly—but it does approach them with a refreshing maturity, one that does not feel the need to sugarcoat the difficulties of being human in order to find genuine sweetness. In fact, one of the best ways to think of After the Triumph of Your Birth might be as a soaring musical, Nashville seasoned with Kerouac, on themes of spiritual despair and confusion. It’s a paradoxically blissful movie about the search for a God who is indifferent and perhaps unreachable; how art can actively inform and function in and clarify the procession of a life; and even our ever-shifting perspective on what constitutes success in an America obsessed with the mantra of acquisition and selfishness of the 1%, even by the remaining 99% whose lives are defined, undermined and devastated by the same sort of economic and philosophical subterfuge. If After the Triumph of Your Birth proves anything, it’s that having a prescribed agenda and direction when approaching matters of theological, political and poetic significance is probably the road best not taken. It is the journey, the asking of the questions, that proves far more compelling and rewarding than the spoon-feeding of solutions.


Any movie that stirs up this kind of emotional carnival of ecstatic rumination in the mind of the viewer, while at the same time transporting them on a tattered magic carpet through shimmering, heightened, ruined landscapes of vibrant humanity the way this movie does, deserves an audience. And yet the very quality of searching and refusal to adhere to prescribed formulas in which these sorts of questions are most frequently posed (if they are posed at all), and the sense that the movie was not made with one eye on the audience, sets it firmly outside the boundaries that define the independent film experience of the 21st century. The irony is, of course, that it is precisely these qualities that should, in a perfect, or a less imperfect world, ensure that it finds an audience that would rise to it on its own open, adventurous, rhapsodic terms.

Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, in introducing the film at its Los Angeles premiere in August at the Cinefamily, called it “pretentious, but in a good way,” tying it to a whole, largely lost tradition of independently oriented American films that once routinely swung for the fences in terms of style and content, displaying damn little fear that their efforts would fall short, and often emerging as richer and most revealing as works of art in spite of, and sometimes because of their shortcomings. After the Triumph of Your Birth will likely remind you of all that we have lost in American film culture, and you could hardly be blamed for mourning that loss. But at the same time it instills within the receptive viewer a sense of hope that film as a genuine medium for artistic expression, one that doesn’t have to provide a punishing experience for the audience in order to qualify as art, is hardly dead. In the hands of filmmakers like Akin and Mckee, whose urgency is beatific and celebratory as much as it is contemplative and solemn, you might even be forgiven a sliver of optimism.

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After the Triumph of Your Birth plays a one-night return engagement on the big screen this coming Thursday, September 13, at the Aero Theater in Los Angeles, and just as it was at the Cinefamily this past summer the movie will be followed Thursday night by a concert headed up by Maria Mckee, Jim Akin, Tom Dunne and other cast members in a rousing set of songs featured in the movie, as well as some deep cuts culled from Mckee’s brilliant musical career and the odd and happy surprise or two. (In the video below, the band knocks out a superlative cover of the Carrie Nations’ “In the Long Run” from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.) Tickets are still available for what will undoubtedly be yet another haunting and heartening evening in the presence of these wonderful artists. If you are in Los Angeles this week and have not yet purchased a ticket, let me urge you to buy one now and ensure that you won’t miss one of the most memorable film and music happenings of the year.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON ONE: TRICK OR TREATING RESUMES NEXT WEEK



The episode-by-episode discussion Simon Abrams and I have been indulging in over the past few weeks vis-à-vis American Horror Story has been a lot of fun, at least from our perspective, and we're still on track to finish up Season One round about the time it debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, and of course just in time for Season Two, titled American Horror Story: Asylum, to make its debut on FX. (All of this happens before Halloween.)

But we're going to take a break from it this week so that Simon may give his focus over entirely to his experience at and his reportage of the Toronto Film Festival now currently under way. Our chatter will resume next week with perhaps one more post from both of us on "Halloween, Pt. 2," followed swiftly by my recap and introduction to Episode 5, "Piggy Piggy."

In the meantime, I'll have a couple other items going up this week, including my review of yet another independent film, this one the most adventurous of the three I'll have focused on over the past week. It's called After the Triumph of Your Birth, a film written and directed by Jim Akin, with considerable creative and musical input from his wife, Maria Mckee, and it's easily one of the best movies I've seen this year. I saw the movie when it premiered over the summer at the Cinefamily, and it's back again in Los Angeles this coming Thursday, September 13, at the Aero Theater. And just like at the Cinefamily, the movie will be followed by a rare live performance by Mckee, Akin and members of the cast playing music from the movie and several other deep cuts designed to delight those who have followed Mckee's musical career, from the mid '80s and Lone Justice to the present. It's a brilliant show to compliment a brilliant movie, and if you're in Los Angeles and you don't yet have a ticket, it will be my mission, through my piece, to convince you to remedy that situation.

Look for my review of After the Triumph of Your Birth sometime tomorrow, and perhaps even another goodie or two to get us through until Simon returns next week and the AHS forum begins again.

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Friday, September 07, 2012

A BRUSH WITH STARLIGHT: FAR (2012)



It’s the simplest of ideas-- boy meets girl, not “cute” so much as “strange,” when he passes her on the street and she seems to pick him out randomly from a core sampling of thousands of possible young male candidates, all milling about Los Angeles looking for direction and, of course, love. Before he even knows what has happened, David (Andre Hall) falls under the spell of this rather forward but sweetly, transparently sincere young woman, Hannah, who gazes at him directly with her spectacular blue eyes and prompts him, almost by telepathy, to ask her out on a date. That date, which is nearly derailed by Hannah’s odd eagerness to agree with everything David says or suggests, and her even odder lack of familiarity with things like alcohol and Mediterranean food, is the main focus of Far, a new short film directed Brian James Crewe from a script by Marion Kerr. Kerr also plays—no, she embodies Hannah, and to such a delightful degree that it’s easy in writing about the film to ignore what happens on that date, the details of which only a true misanthrope would care to spoil, in favor of gushing on at length about the luminescent Kerr.

This is an actress whose delightful screen presence, perfectly calibrated between joy, confusion, innocent allure and the temperance of the best comedic screen acting, absolutely fulfills the possibilities inherent in her script, which is in its way also perfectly calibrated, never stumbling into the multitude of ostentatious pitfalls of overly articulate dialogue that have plagued so much modern indie screenwriting in the wake of Quentin Tarantino.

After the date has threatened to crumble due to Hannah’s inexplicable behavior at dinner (again I refuse to give away anything), David, whose initial instinct is to cut bait and run, suggests they have a “do over” and pretend the past hour never happened. Hannah agrees, appearing to literally wipe her slate clean before his eyes and reintroducing herself to him as if truly starting anew. David then suggests that he and Hannah “grab some dessert, catch a movie, play some golf, whatever you want” and is only mildly surprised when she jumps at the opportunity to do all three. They end up at a Charlie Chaplin Film Festival, which under normal circumstances would seem to be a clueless act of begging for trouble on the part of the filmmakers. But while they laugh and toss popcorn at each other while watching Chaplin’s The Rink (1916), you realize that while comparisons are certainly not being consciously courted, it’s absolutely no stretch, on the evidence of Kerr’s performance, to be reminded of the kind of breathtaking openness that shines forth from Chaplin in a masterpiece like City Lights (1931) when you see what Kerr conjures in this movie. The simplest of close-ups in a two-shot pattern during any one of the conversations between Hannah and David reveals a sublime riot of emotional shifts and constant discovery that Kerr masterfully navigates with the grace of a dancer, or a performer who understands comic acting from the inside out, as if she were completely in tune with or being guided by the spirit of Chaplin and other forefathers and foremothers of the romantic spirit of the movies.

Andre Hall has the formidable challenge of holding his own with Kerr, and it’s a tribute to his own likable presence that he seems at home in and energized by the glow of his leading lady—he makes being smitten by her look like the most obvious, unavoidable thing in this world or any other, and he’s delightful in his own right. (Only a couple of his reaction shots at key moments—one of them telegraphing his indecision at terminating the date, the other I can’t talk about—falter, but the goodwill generated by the whole of the movie exposes an observation like this as Nitpicking 101.)

Through it all, director Crewe maintains a light, steady, never obtrusive hand, gently guiding the events of the evening from curiosity to enthusiasm to frustration, back again to joy and ultimately through a special and bittersweet exhilaration, with the surest of touches that belies his own artistic connection with the cream of the history of romantic comedy. This is a piece of unpretentious directing that Preston Sturges would have enjoyed. In fact, Far is such an unalloyed, perfect realized jewel that, at the slimmest of running times (23 minutes), the “do over” you’ll want to indulge will be in seeing it again, and right away, the better to enjoy all over the lovely rhythms of the movie itself and the incandescence of its lead actress, who shines like the truest starlight. The only question of any import you’re left with at the end of Far seems to be, how could anyone on Earth resist falling in love with Marion Kerr?

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Far screens Sunday at 4:00 p.m. as part of the program of short films scheduled at the L.A. Indie Film Fest. You can purchase tickets here.

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1 EP. 4: NONDISPOSABLE IMAGERY




It's taken me the better part of a week to marshal a response to Simon Abrams's excellent post on American Horror Story's compelling "Halloween, Pt. 2 episode, but I've finally done it. Maybe it's because I felt Simon summarized the episode so well, with so little to disagree with, or maybe it's because the real world once again has made its demands known (as Constance says, "It was me who let her out into the world, and it did what it will do"). Or maybe it's just because I'm lazy. But whatever the reason for my tardiness, here's what Simon's words made me think about.

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Good morning, Simon! Right away, my apologies for the great gap between your initial post and my follow-up this week—it’s been a bit of a bear trying to find time to write this week for a variety of reasons, most of them happy, for once, a couple of them just plainly annoying (and not worth elaborating upon). I watched the “Halloween Part 2” episode again last night, after having not seen it for a few months and found it interesting to more or less view it through your eyes this time, your comments from Tuesday being very fresh in my mind. But I scribbled away some notes of my own, and at the risk of turning in a disjointed post that feels more cobbled together from random ingredients rather than well-mixed and thoroughly baked I’ll just run through some of them right now and see where it leads us.

First and foremost, David Semel’s direction is, as you say, exceptional in “Halloween, Part 2,” and one of the reasons that it works or me— and this is partially dictated by the tenor of the script—is that he settles things down a bit from the visual cacophony that has dominated the show so far, this being primarily a reflective episode. We’re in the immediate aftermath of some pretty horrific events—Addy’s death, Hayden’s murder—and some unsettling developments like Ben’s gradual exposure to Vivien and the problem with Vivien’s baby, which caused the nurse to faint in “Part 1” for reasons which have not yet been revealed to us. And even Tate and Violet’s encounter with “the Dead Breakfast Club” (more wise-crackery courtesy of this week’s writer Tim Minear) is all about forcing Tate to face up to a grisly defining event from his past about which he is apparently in a state of profound denial—those fantasies he has described to Ben about slaughtering his schoolmates turn out to be real. It’s not exactly a Bresson film, but even given the disruptive appearance of these poor, defiled souls, not to mention Hayden’s newly minted ghost form, there’s a certain pallid serenity about the episode and Semel seems to take his cue from that.


I like your observation about his use of negative space, and again that comment led me to see the way he has guided the lighting and the editing and the composition of the frames a bit more clearly. One of the things that drives me nuts about the hostile takeover of visual style, in movies, certainly, but more so I think on modern television, is how the impatience of the shattered-glass style of editing and the unmoored restlessness of the camera (in service to some sort of quasi-documentary realism or, more likely, a design to keep the attention of jaded, wandering eyes ) has served to undermine our appetite for imagery, or at least our desire to stop long enough for what we’re seeing to sink in. We seem to have become addicted to the constant barrage of near-subliminal imprinting of images in our consciousness, and I think it’s largely because directors have less confidence in what it takes to compose meaningful imagery that reveals its meaning slowly, deliberately. (Of course this is a huge generalization, but I think it’s one that certainly applies to this show, and to many other series I’ve seen lately.)

Even Ryan Murphy has commented that a lot of the negative feedback he got on the first couple of episodes of American Horror Story tended to center on how visually distressed the show seemed to be and that there was a noticeable settling down around the time of the “Halloween” coupling. Maybe that’s what made your eyeballs roll about that one shot of Ben where the camera seems to quaver right along with his mounting homicidal anger toward Larry— I didn’t find it as annoying as you did, but it stuck out like a sore thumb because, within the context of even the most highly pitched scenes in the episode in which the camera doesn’t, for once, seem as excitable as the characters-- like Hayden’s offer to rid Vivien of her little pregnancy problem with a shard of broken glass-- it’s ostentatious in a way the rest of the episode largely avoided (as least compared to the other episodes so far).

I’m thinking of Hayden’s bathtub repose, of course— your description of it last time was marvelous. And you’re right—it’s almost subliminally creepy how the water, already brackish when we first see her in the tub, probably to mask the nudity of the actress, is noticeably darker and thicker when she vacates. She obviously looks much better, more robust, not ghastly pale and decomposed like she did when she was spitting up blood and teeth in the basement a few minutes earlier. But really, just what the fuck did this woman slough off to create this god-awful sludge? (Talk about the devil’s bathtub ring!) But Semel seduces us with some more “real” imagery later on too, like the lovely touch of Addy’s “pretty girl” mask partially visible in the nether regions of the focal plane, taking up residence in that negative space while Violet, in sharp close-up, talks to Constance in the kitchen. (It is a relief to see Constance soften up a bit, and you can tell Lange relishes the opportunity as well, but what’s wonderful about the scene—one of the many things—is how it resonates with the side of Constance we already know, and how Lange never lets us lose sight of that even at her most sympathetic.)

And I’m also thinking of moments in that beachside scene in which we start to discover just how unaware Tate is of his own nature, his own horrific deeds, and how the director expresses that with the camera. As he speaks to Violet and looks out at the ocean, musing about the endless vastness of the space stretching out before them (with just the right shade of humility to offset the on-the-nose quality of his observations), the camera actually holds on Evan Peters’ face and allows us the opportunity to creep into him and join him in his effort to cut through his own defenses. It’s easily Peters’ best moment in the series so far, and that has everything to do with the way Semel provides him the chance to work uninterrupted, as it were, by the tricks of his trade. (In the same sequence there’s also a lovely cutaway from the intimacy o Tate and Violet on the beach, just before their angst teen idyll is shattered in a most unconventional way, to a rather conventional long shot positioned from behind and up the hill, of the two of them looking out into the darkness. By any measure it’s, by contrast, a perfectly conventional shot, but positioned as a respite from the dashed-off visual style of AHS in general, it looks like a Wyeth in its masterful simplicity.


And finally, when the Dead Breakfast Club have finished (re)introducing themselves and confronting Tate with his crimes after chasing him away from the house and coming back to the beach, rather than culminating the scene in further horror and humiliation for Tate, one of them says “We gotta go,” and you might, as I did at first, think, Gee, that’s kind of a random way of ending the scene. Just where do a bunch of dead kids have to go so urgently anyway? Semel provides the answer in another beautiful long shot of the kids walking away from Tate on the beach, the sun ever so faintly on the rise. The dead walk freely on Halloween, and we see Moira, Chad, Patrick, the redheaded twins and the two dead nurses all moving mournfully back to the house which will contain them for the rest of the year, and for eternity, in another languid, mournful sequence characterized by a dirge-like tracking shot. But where does the Dead Breakfast Club retreat to, having been murdered not in the house, but in their school? It’s a question the episode gratefully never answers, or feels that it has to. (One possible answer, a literal realization of high school as what many of us already believe to have been a kind of hell on earth, would have been insufferably smug.)


All right, there’s plenty left to talk about, so in the event that I haven’t completely wasted our chance and we’ll actually be able to get in another post each on this episode before the conclusion of the weekend I’ll shut up for now. But before I do, I just wanted to register my enthusiasm for Kate Mara, sister of Rooney and someone who I have apparently seen several times before (127 Hours, for example) but who made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever up to this point. I know you find the kind of outraged-feminist dialogue she is frequently asked to speak disdainful and annoying, and I don’t totally disagree. But Mara wears her rage very well, and I think she makes that rage palatable in sympathetic ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. She gets me with her strange mix of fear, insecurity and, God help me, her openness to the apparently erotic charge she gets out of being one of the undead. Evil brings out a seductive assertiveness in Hayden that is just the other side of madness, and Mara has a hell of a time exploring that charge beginning with this episode. I think she’s really captivating in just the right, curdled, awful sort of way.

And if I missed something please forgive me, but who was reaching out for Violet’s ankles from underneath her bed when Larry comes a-knockin’ at the beginning of this episode? It’s not Tate-- we see him outside. It’s not the Rubber Man—we see him inside. It’s not the Infantata— he/it is a basement dweller. And it sure isn’t Addy. Who the hell is under Violet’s bed?

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

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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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

THINGS I DON'T UNDERSTAND (2012)



In his new feature Things I Don’t Understand, a romantic comedy with a serious jones for thoughts of mortality, one of the things writer-director David Spaltro best understands is the value of the question and the folly of trying to nail down the definitive answer. Violet (Molly Ryman) is a disaffected, underachieving, on-again, off-again grad student who spends time away from her “pressure-free” retail job interviewing “near-deathers,” people who have come back from the brink of passing away. She’s looking for a thread of consistency in their experience that might shed some light on what actually happens in that microsecond when our bodies stop functioning, when they give up the ghost, when we step into an unknown eternity. “I’ve always wanted to know what happens when you die,” Molly says in the voiceover that opens the film, so much so that she even slashes her own wrists in a failed suicide attempt, though it’s clear from the dissatisfaction she registers with her own history of failed familial relationships and dead-end sexual encounters that her motivations for this act of desperation are far more than academic.

As encouragement for her own inquiries, Violet’s therapist (Lisa Eichhorn, of Cutter and Bone) sends her to a Catholic hospice for terminal patients where she meets Sara (Grace Folsom), a young girl stricken with liver cancer whom Violet looks upon with pity until she recognizes a bit of her own defiant intelligence lurking within Sara’s far sweeter, more forgiving and necessarily self-defensive detachment. The unexpected bond these two forge becomes the emotional nucleus around which writer-director Spaltro builds an appealing community of characters, people who influence and inform what is probably Violet’s first mature perspective on life. Soon after, two deaths, one of which resonates from the past in that community, shake Violet, whose own atheism has always served both as a conviction and a shield, and the ghosts that begin to seep into her consciousness reposition the afterlife as something more than simply a subject for existential curiosity. Agnostic in spirit, Things I Don’t Understand, which makes its theatrical premiere tonight as an opening night selection at the Burbank Film Festival, has empathy for not only Violet’s search for clarity but also for that of her friends, an amusing but never too cute gathering of bohemian misfits and hangers-on whose sometimes misguided, sometimes happily fumbling attempts to define themselves against a variety of dying lights form the tapestry of the film’s drama.


Spaltro has a sure touch with orchestrating the intertwining lives and relationships of these characters, and the way he slides and adjusts the focal plane between them, as they refract those questions of mortality and purpose that inform the film through their individual prisms, elicits faint echoes of the generous spirit of Jonathan Demme, himself a spiritual heir to the inclusive, nonjudgmental wonderment of Jean Renoir. And he draws out a lovely, unfettered performance from Grace Folsom as Sara, whose emotional integrity is informed by a serene acceptance and a biting humor that fulfills the sometimes overly wisecracking articulations of the script. There is indeed a grace to the way Folsom approaches the challenge of shedding light onto Sara’s limited world-- she lets us see the anger and the fear simmering under the surface without allowing Sara to boil over into a rage of maudlin self-pity, and she never loses the audience even though her work hasn’t a whiff of calculation about it. Folsom's big moment, in which Sara expresses the quality of anguish hidden beneath her placid and accepting demeanor, is masterful and moving, without a shred of the sort of emotional manipulation one has been conditioned to expect from even our most seasoned cinematic scene-chewers.

Violet poses a greater challenge, to the audience and to Molly Ryman— she’s an aggressively unlikable character, and she recognizes this about herself, therefore Ryman and Spaltro have to make a greater effort to get us on her side. For the film’s first half at least they are only partially successful. Ryman has a natural presence that the camera loves, but she strikes me as a bit too self-conscious as Violet, relying as she does on a battery of ticks— eyeball-rolling, snarky scoffs are favorites— to telegraph with precious little subtlety her obvious disdain for those around her and her general dissatisfaction with life. Added to the character’s apparently genetic impatience with social niceties, these affectations cause Violet to become a bit too taxing at the beginning of the film, when our empathies need to be nurtured more carefully. Fortunately, as Violet’s defenses begin to break down, so do Ryman’s and she achieves something of the unadorned simplicity of Folsom’s approach, the perfect balm for the shattered moments when Violet's own shields begin to drop.

In more ways than just the obvious, Things I Don’t Understand is a thoughtful drama that rewards a little touch of faith in the things we can’t quite put our finger on, like spiritual journeys, simple human generosity, a surprising sexual/emotional connection, and even the possibility of sweetness in the release into a void where all conscious might simply end. Happily, through his deft writing and agility in juggling his thematic concerns, Spaltro suggests a way to retain the flavor of life even when considering the abyss.

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Things I Don't Understand screens tonight at the AMC Burbank 16 as part of the opening night of the Burbank International Film Festival. The screening begins at 9:00 p.m. and tickets can be purchased by clicking here. The film will also screen at the upcoming San Diego Film Festival and other festivals around the country. For updated information on those screenings, check the film's Facebook page.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1 EP. 4: "HALLOWEEN, PART 2" RECAP



Okay, so that's it for another Labor Day weekend, and as we get back into the swing of things for the working week Simon Abrams busts out of the gate firing on all cylinders in his appreciation of American Horror Story's next offering, the "Halloween, Pt. 2" episode, which Simon considers the high-water mark of the series so far. Just a reminder that you can keep up with the action of this back-and-forth between Simon and me not only here but also at his very own blog Extended Cut, where he also posts reviews of current releases and nuggets from the past as well that may not get touched upon in his work for various publications each week. Without further delay then, here's Simon's kickoff for our week's worth of dalliances with the latest in this popular miniseries' slouch down the road to hell, where something is laying in wait to be born... But I'm getting ahead of myself. Simon, stop me!

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So, as promised, I've finally started to come around on American Horror Story. I've kept with the show because I've hoped it would get as good as and then better than the standard set by "Pilot." Now, I think "Halloween, Part 2" is probably the best episode of the series thus far. Granted, we're only five episodes in, but shut up, that's why.

Anyway, I rewatched "Halloween, Part 2" so that this introductory post would be a little more detailed than my previous plot synopses have been. And as I rewatched it, I got a better handle on what I liked about this episode and why it mattered more to me than what I disliked. A good part of what I liked can be credited to episode director David Semel, who not only paces "Part 2" with great care, but also shoots it with an eye for negative space, and an artful use of natural lighting and extreme close-ups.


Generally speaking, I also found the way that various characters' arcs were immediately resolved in this episode to be satisfying. Addy's dead, so now Constance can, to paraphrase Manohla Dargis's review of Premium Rush, let a little light into her storyline (ie: be more than an ostensibly complex but mostly just lovably catty old crone). Thanks to Hayden, Ben is forced to accept that he can't superhumanly hold his family together. And thanks to Violet's increased interest in him, Tate's past is revealed just a little more. All of these revelations would not be as satisfying as they are without Semel's direction, I think. He's got my vote for MVP of "Halloween, Part 2," easy.

Events in "Halloween, Part 2" pick up almost exactly where "Halloween, Part 1" left off. Larry is banging on the door asking for a bribe while Ben and Vivien are away. This leaves Violet home alone with a psychopath on the front porch. That epithet ("psychopath") is one that Violet will later hurl at Chad the "fluffer," but it could just as easily be used to describe the derangoid behavior of any number of ghosts that have visited the Harmons over the last five episodes. It's an all-purpose epithet, really. Heck, even Rubber Man shows up briefly, right behind Violet's shoulder, but then he disappears just as quickly. After offering a trite but sufficiently angsty sign of affection (a hand-painted black rose), Tate calls Violet up and asks her if she wants to ditch her haunted home and go out on that "real" date Violet (last episode) said she wanted to go on. She does, so they go, abandoning the house to its ghosts.

Soon after that, Ben and Violet return to said house. The alarm has been triggered, so Morris Chestnut inevitably shows up to check in on things. But not for a little bit. Ben suspects that the alarm has been triggered by Hayden. But in all likelihood, the intruder that set off the alarm is Larry, whose scarred hand is briefly shown sneaking up and out at Violet right before she ditches the Murder House for relatively greener pastures. So Ben goes for a kitchen knife, but puts it down when Vivien gives him a dirty look. Like Tate, Vivien dismisses the fact that the Harmons' pumpkin patch has been upturned while they were out by anything more dangerous than some "asshole kids." It is Halloween, after all. This popular myth (we know that it can't be asshole kids; there's no such thing as coincidence on this show) is passed on like a game of telephone: Tate tells it to Violet, who passes it on to Vivien, who passes it on later to Morris. And lo, Morris shows up and chats/flirts with Violet some more. Which is getting tiresome, as when she says that he makes her feel much "safer"

Right now, Ben is and isn't right to think that Hayden has snuck into his house. She's skulking about but she's not the only intruder all up in there. First, Ben has to dispatch Larry, and he does this after making a Bruce Banner-worthy declaration about how badly he wants to make living with his family work ("You hear me? I am not giving up on this family!"). So he swings a shovel at Larry and warns him to get lost or he'll really lose it. This scene is one of the few really poorly-directed sequences, I feel. To feel Ben's unbridled rage, Semel makes the camera quake as if it had some kinda palsy. Spare me.

Anyway, Ben's mad, and desperate, look out, oh no. Meanwhile, Violet's out on her date with Tate. But it gets interrupted by a bunch of kids that look like they should be extras in Sometimes They Come Back. Who they are is obvious for everyone but Tate and Violet: these are the ghosts of Tate's victims. The recurring dream sequence that Tate's been afflicted with? The one I was so sure was fake until now? Turns out it might not be fake. This is the only viable conclusion I think we are left with, especially since Larry just lustfully asked Ben to kill him, "So I can come back and haunt you, too."


Now, I like this subplot for a couple of reasons, even moreso upon rewatch. It starts from the premise that yes, we can take Tate's change of heart seriously. We aren't really told this point-blank but rather are shown this as Tate frolics around Violet during her phone conversation with Vivien. I like this conversation too because it quietly shows us that Vivien is concerned with her daughter, and not just for her immediate safety but also her general emotional well-being ("Are you having fun?"). I like that.

So so so, right. Violet and Tate, getting harassed by some of Tate's victims, obviously dead but now back (because, as it was established in "Halloween, Part 1," the dead can apparently walk freely on Halloween). And they're mad at Tate. This I didn't find so impressive in and of itself. They want the life that he's taken away from them, they're mad at him, he's uncomprehending, and that just pisses them off that much more. This'd be mostly just uninteresting were it not for Semel's direction of the scene. Let's back up for a sec: the preceding scene where, before the ghosts show up, Tate and Violet try to get it on, was fairly well-shot. I didn't care for much of Tate's dialogue here ("This vast, limitless expanse. And that's...like your life, man. You can do anything. You can be anything. Screw high school. That's just a blip in your time line."). But I did like the way he was lit, the way his face looked in close-up and the way that young Evan Peters performed these lines. It achieved the desired effect, in other words, even if the material he was given to work with isn't so strong. I also liked the make-up effects that define Tate's victims better than any of their dialogue does. The girl with that weird, orange flap of mottled skin on the left side of her face: that was especially gruesome!

Anyway, back at the house. Hayden calls Vivien just as she's about to slip into a bath. She tells Vivien what she wants (a question so popular with the Harmons that Vivien and Ben ask Hayden it once each!): for Ben's true colors to be revealed. So she urges Vivien to ask Ben about Boston, the time when (as we already know) he told Vivien that he was visiting a patient when in fact he was visiting Hayden. Generally speaking, I don't think the Hayden subplot is that strong (hated lame dialogue like when she protests, "Is that what you think of women, Ben? Like there some disposable nothings that you can just stand on top of as you casually drink iced tea?!" I like that it gets resolved but I don't like the resolution (poof, she vanishes after being arrested by Morris, oo wee oo!).


But I do like this one shot where Semel takes the time to show us Hayden, later in the episode, luxuriating in the bath that Vivien drew for herself. Vivien's gone downstairs to investigate. So in the meatnime, Hayden sneaks into the bath. And you can see there's something wrong with the bath from the way that the water looks...a little brown, actually. And Hayden surfaces, and she has this look on her face, a look that's only accented by Semel's deft use of soft focus (When you use soft focus correctly, it really does have a great effect) and natural lighting. And it looks like she's turned on by the fact that she's exactly where Vivien was about to be. The look on Hayden's face seems to say: I could get used to this. Which for American Horror Story is downright subtle.

Speaking of which, I also liked the scene when Constance immediately resolves her feelings for Addy. The flashback where she recounts to Violet, now separated from Tate, is pretty effective if only because of (you guessed it) Semel's direction and Jessica Lange's performance. Watching her patiently but tearfully apply lipstick to Addy's corpse lends some much-needed weight to Constance's portentous line about how Addy didn't look "so pretty under those harsh, energy-efficient lights." The cigarette Constance conspiratorially shares with Violet was also a nice touch, but I probably wouldn't have bought that if the scene at large didn't work. Semel and his capable cast pull it off though, thankfully.

Maybe that's why I've been so frustrated with American Horror Story of late, Dennis: the directors' inability to pull off what the show's writers are (I'm now convinced) not entirely capable of. Television is a writer's medium, ja? But a good director can really make up for a lot of a screenplay's shortcomings.


Anyway, anyway, anyway. So: Constance tells Addy what Addy's death means to her. And she even reveals to Addy something I had previously suspected: Tate is Constance's other child. This is interesting in and of itself but not as interesting, I think, as the inconclusive confrontation between Tate and his ghosts. They implore Tate to remember what he's done but, just as the pieces seem to come together for him, he shakenly confesses, "I don't remember you." It's a moving scene, mostly because of his performance and the way his breakdown is presented. But I also liked this scene because it indicates that sometimes, while the past does often come back to haunt the show's protagonists, and repetition is a theme in this episode (I'll get to that in my next post), sometimes we have to remain in denial to protect ourselves. I may not like the alacrity with which Tate's love for Violet has redeemed him as a character. But I do like that now that he is more of a protagonist than an antagonist, his behavior establishes an interesting parallel between him and Ben. But again, more on this soon.

Ben, after the ordeal with Hayden, who as I said gets arrested but not successfully detained, leaves the house. And that leaves Vivien in a pretty mess, doesn't it? Good place to stop though, so I'll leave off here after mentioning that the sun goes up, Halloween ends, and many of the ghosts (some of whom I'll mention specifically in my next post) that haunted our heroes in "Halloween, Part 1" and "Part 2" troop back into the house, presumably to disappear.

Whatcha think, Dennis?

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

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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Saturday, September 01, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1 EP. 3: CONSIDERING THE BALL EFFECT



Simon Abrams gets the final word in on our back-and-forth on the "Halloween, Pt. 1" episode of American Horror Story. Simon will be back after the holiday to kick off the week with a recap and some opening thoughts on "Halloween, Pt. 2." Until then, have a nice, long weekend, everybody, and Simon, thanks for keeping it lively!

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Hey, grrl, hey.

Again, I agree that in theory, Constance's actions make sense given how she has so far been defined on the show. It's in her character to show her love in that way. But that doesn't mean I need to appreciate it on said level. Constance's identity is so loaded with portentous bathos, the kind typified by the tacked-on Southern Gothic atmosphere provided by the "Stay away from my boy toy!" sub-plot in "Halloween, Part 1," and earlier in the AHS's second episode. The crude way that Constance is established as a monstrous parent are just cheap enough to be in a Charlaine Harris novel.

I admit I'm making the Harris connection so I can go back to the Alan Ball-esque quality to American Horror Story that I find so risibly obnoxious. Falchuk and Murphy have this nasty habit of tonally front-loading their material so we know exactly how we're supposed to feel all the time (hence the declamatory speechifying). If we're meant to jeer at certain characters, they pour it on thick, and if we're meant to like a character, they pout it on equally thick. And in the case of Constance, that thick-ness is a prime example of why more is not more. More specifically: I disagree that there is as much of an interior life to Constance as you imply.

Context is key when it comes to horror, as it does with any genre, but material actions of characters almost always stand in for and establish a character's identity in American Horror Story. I have yet to see Constance act as anything more than a pathetic monster, someone that sees the flaws in her character but has only spite for people that see her good qualities. This, apart from the clunky dialogue, is why I didn't really take much away from when she shouts about how being brave in the eyes of strangers (certainly strangers to us, as we've never seen them on the show!) means nothing to her.

I don't see the film's directors or writers penetrating Constance's character in these first four episodes because I don't think they don't give themselves a reason to really care until they kill off Addy. Which sounds bitterly cynical but I think Falchuk and Murphy are just that cynical, as is shown with the ridiculous "fluffer" joke. I really do believe that Constance only comes to life as a character after Addy's death because Addy brings out the character's suffocating mean-ness, her limiting sense of empathy, and her admittedly sometimes entertaining cattiness. With Addy gone, she can really grow as a character and revel in the emotions that have only heretofore been hinted at through cryptic dialogue. Which is a good part of why I like her one emotionally big scene in "Halloween, Part 2." But we'll get to that soon enough.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: as in the first one-and-a-half seasons-worth of the Ball-run True Blood that I've seen, a typical episode of American Horror Story (up until this episode or so) relies way too much on dialogue and situations that are, as you put it, "strident." You said that that "stridency reveals itself in big moments" but I feel that the show's writers are constantly revealing that stridency. They're like that one Gremlin that flashes us in both Gremlins and Gremlins 2: enough with the flashing! No mas flashing! It gets tiresome real quick. Which is another reason why I found "Halloween, Part 2" to be as relatively rewarding as I did. But again, we'll get to that. See you back here in a couple days, Dennis.

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

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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