Friday, September 07, 2012


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.


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?


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







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