Wednesday, October 12, 2016


The last novel I finished reading was Necroscope III (which I didn't review, but I did review the second instalment) back in May(!). I watched a metric tonne of films and wrote about some of them. I chalked my lack of interest in reading as a focus in film, but I think there may have been something else going on with me. To wit: I drove home from the lake, a 2 hour drive, in the early evening, my eyes already a bit tired. It was on the highway, at night, that I realized my eyesight had deteriorated substantially, enough to cause alarm during night driving: I couldn't gauge the distance of oncoming traffic, road signs were impossible to read until too late, even the car's dash display was a bit out of focus. A mental block finally lifted; I couldn't see and I couldn't read. The culprit, guilty of depriving me my reading, wasn't a lack of focus but an inability to read the pages. Words swam and shifted when I read, making it almost impossible to concentrate. Slowly, the veil lifted from my mind, only to reveal that there was a veil over my eyes. I suspect I had repressed my deteriorating eyesight as a defence mechanism; I haven't been handling ageing very well, to be honest. Quickly, I realized that both my long distance and close-up eyesight had worsened considerably, an inconvenient truth I buried deep down. After all, my laser eye surgery was supposed to last longer than 10 years. Thus, I made an eye appointment and in the mean time, I took the plunge: I purchased glasses, a pair for distance and a pair for reading and lo! I could read again.

Here then, is a list of books I've read since July:
Planet Hong Kong: Popular Art and the Cinema of Entertainment by David Bordwell
Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art by Adrian Martin
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Girls by Emma Cline
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
Biohazard by Tim Curran
Last Days by Brian Evenson
Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis edited by Scott R. Jones
Singing with All My Skin and Bone by Sunny Moraine
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Animals by John Skipp and Craig Spector
Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond edited by Scott R. Jones
Gateways to Abomination: Collected Short Fiction by Matthew M. Bartlett
and finally, I finished Fungi edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A clear pattern emerges: I am captivated by horror fiction right now. I've also still tried to include women identified authors and, by accident, a non-binary author who uses they/them pronouns (Moraine).

Here are some thoughts on the books I've read.

With Rebecca, I had expected a Gothic romance in the mode of Jane Eyre (one of my all time fav novels), perhaps not in style, but in plot and/or tone. I had inklings that Rebecca was a ghost story, or at least, a tricksy story about a haunting, either literal or figurative. I suppose I set myself up for disappointment by bringing a suitcase of presumptions. However, I can happily report that though the novel confounded all my conjecture, I enjoyed it immensely.

I had not realized how much of an influence on my beloved Sarah Waters did du Maurier have. The plotting in Rebecca and The Paying Guests, at least in how incident is accumulated, is mostly the same: no ellipsis, a steady onslaught of complication, and a methodical precision. The unnamed narrator of Rebecca only skips forward in time twice: during her honeymoon and during a short span before the great party that Manderley hosts that sets off the final third of the novel. Similarly, in The Paying Guests, the narrator only skips slightly in time with the two protagonists' love affair and with the trial at the end. Otherwise, every day, every incident is catalogued with monumental exactitude. Though, this is how suspense is built: the imbuing of the quotidian with narrative weight. The denouement, of which I'll say more in a bit, struck me as being most similar to Waters. The outcome is inevitable; it is the sinking desperation of the situation that compels the reader onward.

I adored the tone and atmosphere that du Maurier carefully builds. The prologue, with its famous opening sentence, sets up a more oneiric novel than the one produced, though this doesn't mean Rebecca is as straight forward as the plot suggests. The careful citation of dreams and memories does suggest an unreliable narrator, but whether or not there's a tangible counter-narrative, I can't say without reading the novel a second time.

What I didn't love was the final third of the novel, once Rebecca's body has been found. The unnamed narrator, previously an active witness, with opinions and thoughts, slips into a passive observer, with her presence in the narrative being inconsequential. She watches but does not act on anything, either narratively or literally. Similarly, this slip in her role mirrors the prose's slippage into a workman like dullness. I can appreciate the prose's simplicity in the final stretches as an attempt at increasing suspense (and it worked: I was determined to sprint to the end) but it was in reflection afterwards when I realized I much preferred the beginning and middle to the final third. Even still, I adored Rebecca and would definitely read it a second time to savour the prose.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was an exquisite experience. It's the rare gay Black fantasy work, but not in the "checking off diversity" kind of way contemporary genre literature can tend towards. Rather, this novella uses Black experience to inform and affect the setting and the characters. Just as whiteness as epistemological field saturates fantasy literature without calling attention to its own race category, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps features Black characters, speaking in various dialects (AAVE, traditional fantasy, etc) and code-shifting as the context changes. 2015 was a productive year for cultural objects investigating code-shifting, with Key & Peele's mixed bag Keanu and the continued rise of Kevin Hart and the sitcom Blackish. There is clearly a market for intelligent works by Black authors and there always was, but at least the mainstream is finally getting the memo. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is also an exquisite fantasy novel, careful and subtle with its world-building, and wisely intense with characterization (much fantasy I've read has been a Dungeons and Dragons game peppered with shades of people). Wilson's command of character and prose is impeccable and I'm very interested to see the next work (set in the same universe) as this.

Oddly, the Goodreads reviews show a disturbing trend: many reviewers have found this novella difficult (one reviewer spoke of the author's tendency to "obscurantism"). I've said it before, but Goodreads as a community of book reviews is a packed post-apocalyptic metropolis of gifs masquerading as discourse and "celebrity" reviewers all with the depth of a thimble. The whole thing should be unceremoniously deposited into a rocket and sent into the deepest, coldest quadrants of the universe, figuratively of course.

I have such mixed feelings about Emma Cline's much-fêted début The Girls. While I loved the compelling and evocative depiction of "teenage magic," I found the narrator so off-putting I struggled mightily. I'm not one to normally really give a shit about the protagonist's likeability or whether or not they're relatable, but the narrator's unrelenting negativity and judgement of every single character wore on me. For sure, The Girls is meant to convey a sense of internalized misogyny, the rapacious compulsion for women identified folks to judge other women identified folks. It succeeds in this measure: I've heard from quite a few folks that Cline nails the internal monologue of a teen girl. Still, it's hardly pleasant to be subjected to this judgement for 300 pages. The narrator finds every single person pitiable. She judges them for their physical imperfections, their movement, their behaviour, their class. Nothing is spared. Though the narrator's position at the chronological end of the novel throws the novel's own judgement of her into question. In her 60s, the narrator is alone and without friends, forced by circumstances to mix with children and other lonely people. She claims she's happy with her life, but her solitude raises some questions unanswered by the novel: is she alone because she's truly unpleasant or did her time with the cult push her into solitude? On the whole, The Girls was an enjoyable read, but perhaps not as good as the reviews are making it seem.

Brissett's Elysium has an intriguing premise which is unfortunately spoiled by any information about the novel. It's best to go into this one completely blind, but unfortunately, that's just not possible.

Elysium introduces itself with two characters whose gender, age, social/economic position shift with each iteration/chapter/scene. The names are similar enough so the reader can follow, but many questions begin to emerge: who are these people? why are their identifies not stable? Chapter breaks occur with the appearance of code, machine language, suggesting there is an error in programming. The reader begins to clue in: this is a scenario being run by a corrupt program. The truth is more complicated and much more intriguing, but the journey to get there is still fun. As each sequence in the code is self-contained, it's difficult to muster allegiance to the characters; investing in their emotional journey is an almost impossible task, yet the novel's themes, its obsession with the "love across time and space" trope demands the reader to invest. Elysium, thus, is not entirely successful in its endeavours. While its ultimate solution to the mystery isn't as unique as one would hope, its execution is ambitious enough to smooth over any issues I had with the overall novel. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap at something audacious.

Biohazard by Tim Curran was my return to the horror writer after years being apart. I can't say I missed his company, but I was in the mood for something extremely gory and just overall extreme. Curran did not disappoint. I've not read many other novels so completely stuffed with the cavalcade of grotesqueries offered by Biohazard. Detailed descriptions of: corpses, in all manner of decomposition; violence; radiation sickness; violence; gore; violence—all awaits you in Curran's novel of extremes. I was not disappointed by the level of gore I had been hoping, nor was I disappointed by the preponderance of Conservative values the novel suggests. I know by now extreme shit like this is usually written by middle aged white dudes who vote Republican and espouse Conservative ideals: eg survivalism, inequality of the sexes, the dominance and ingrained hyper-competence of the white male. Biohazard is the assembled rantings and ravings of a 15 year old boy, complete with that sticky feeling the reader gets when gazing into the id of a teen. Still, it feels almost unfair of me to criticize Curran for this; I knew what I was getting into. He has made a (successful?) career of delivering this kind of horror fiction and thus there's a market for this. How can I begrudge him his success with such masturbatory fantasies? 

It was synchronicity for me to discover Brian Evenson. The bookstore I work in received copies of the reissues of his books, and any unified book design is sure to catch my eye. Thinking nothing of it, I passed on them. Fast forward a smidge, and I've befriend critic and author S.j. Bagley on Facebook. This was a mistake as they suggested so many great things to read, including Evenson. I dashed back to work to pick up Last Days only to find the copy had been placed on hold by a friend, who had coincidentally only heard of Evenson the previous week through a different avenue! Spooky. I simply borrowed my friend's copy and devoured it. Last Days is comprised of two novellas: the original novella published elsewhere and then a follow-up novella added so it could be sold as a single book.

This is one of the rare cases in my entire life where I wish I had stopped halfway. Not that the second novella is bad (in fact, it's quite good and takes an incredible detour into violence), it's that the end of the first novella is so damn good, perhaps one of the best endings I've ever read. I hesitate to say more about these two novellas (or one novel) as Evenson is operating at a wavelength I feel not intelligent enough to comment on. Evenson is clearly interested in some gems of critical theory and philosophy (the abject, just for one example) and I can sense he's playing with the ontology of selfhood, but I'm just not well-read enough in this realm to comment on Evenson's success or failure at suggesting these complicated themes. Luckily, the novel is more than philosophical propositions but also a propulsive and compelling narrative about cults, dismemberment, and what constitutes a human being. 

Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis features some great short fiction in the Lovecraftian vein, something I never seem to tire of, but more importantly, features one of the best single short stories I've ever read in my life. Stefanie Elrick's piece, "Mother's Nature" was revelatory. Rarely do I finish a piece and then immediately return to the beginning to savour it again. I felt obsessed with the story: I read excerpts to my partner, I read excerpts to friends, I posted about it on Facebook, I tweeted about it. I felt like I needed to deliver a sermon on the mount about Elrick's stupendous prose and careful suggestion of horror. A sample sentence: "Static shivered through the air, fondling the hairs on my scalp and my arms." UGHHH that's so good. The rest of the anthology offers some incredible delights: "We Three Kings" by Don Raymond was very successful at evoking a feeling of dread and horror (and wonder) in me, something a jaded cynical reader of horror such as myself feels so rarely. This was another Bagley suggestion and a successful one!

Sunny Moraine's Singing With All My Skin and Bone was amazing. Individual stories ranged from excellent to so-so, but as a collected whole, this book touched me in a way I hadn't expected. I've only recently come out as "gender creative" (a term that I'm not married to and am exploring other avenues) but I'm finding myself breathing all these moans of relief when I encounter something that beautifully depicts a similar relationship between the self and the body. Sunny Moraine's short stories have felt like the clearest signal I've heard in a long time that just *gets* the antagonistic relationship I have with my body. They (they use they pronouns, I checked) depict trans characters (but not in that showy "look how diverse I am" way) in Weird Fiction and horror, though the characters' gender expression isn't incidental nor is it "an issue" in the stories. Rather, their use of the fluidity of gender relates, thematically, to the slippery fluidity of reality, fiction, genre, and corporeality. It's been a long time since I read an author that seems to understand how I feel about my body: a decaying, strange prison of flesh that transmutes and changes with or without my consent (more often without). The eponymous story features fairly graphic descriptions of self-harm, but as a form of magic, a form of freedom, but without falling into the trope of "mental illness as exotic or special." With these stories, I seem to enjoy a cycle of emotion: shock, awe (at their prose proficiency), relief, and sometimes tears, tears that somebody understands me and my fucked up body.

I'm incredibly late to the party (57 years late) but The Haunting of Hill House was also revelatory. I was expecting a cosy haunted house narrative in the vein of M. R. James or Henry James but I was delighted to find it far from those masters, in a category all to Jackson's own. First of all, the prose and characterization was superb. Many how-to guides suggest avoiding adverbs, but thankfully Jackson eschewed that hoary canard. She has the power to pinpoint the absolute most perfect adverb for a sentence, taking the description from satisfactory to a realm of sublimity. I wish I had noticed sooner so I could have recorded them all, but one stands out: she describes a statue sitting "sternly" in the middle of a room. This is the type of prose I go gaga for: understated, meticulous, and precise.

The Haunting of Hill House isn't just the portrait of a master of prose but also a harrowing examination of the tremulous and permeable borders of sanity and subjectivity. I kept expecting a twist ending à la Blatty's Elsewhere, though Jackson avoids something so crass or obvious. Instead, she uses the much more effective strategy of suggesting the protagonist's subjectivity has blurred with the house's animus. The psychological complexity and depth of this novel astounded me. Hill House mines incredibly sophisticated territory of the self and of the mind, putting the novel squarely in the tradition of horror fiction while simultaneously forging new ground in suspense, tension, and questions of phenomenology/epistemology. I'm positively shocked I haven't read this before. I would place this novel firmly near the top of finest horror novels I've ever read and certainly the finest haunted house novel I've ever read.

Returning to Evenson, we have his slim novella The Warren, clocking in at only 100 pages or so. Here again, we have Evenson dabbling in complex matters of the self and the meanings of "person" and "human." The epigram notes the novel is "for" Gene Wolfe, which immediately prepared me for narrative trickery and unreliable goings-on. The Warren might try to do too much and too little at the same time, which didn't really diminish the experience for me. There is, of course, the Gene Wolfe-style obfuscation, the narrator's faulty memory and careful lying, but there's also meaty suggestions of a counter-narrative that's only ever hinted at, making the novella seem bigger than its length would suggest. At the same time, there are only two characters, with one character off-screen for the bulk of the novella, appearing at the beginning and at the end (very conveniently). Perhaps a third character might have livened up the middle section, which feels like a bit of a slog, to be honest, but this might off-set the thematic and subjective myopia of the entire thing. I quite liked this tiny volume and its secrets gnaw at me, asking me to reread it.

Skipp and Spector's Animals wasn't recommended to me, per se. Rather, my friend John remarked he had always wanted to read their work as it promised, in the 90s, to be the most extreme, goriest horror out there. Working firmly in the splatterpunk vein, Skipp and Spector wrote 5 novels together, all of which have a strong reputation in the splatterpunk horror scene. I chose their werewolf novel as my first go-around, a 400 page hunk of horror. My expectations were confounded, as they often were, but not in a negative way. I had expected something more in line with the "punk" epithet of the genre, but Animals was not punk in any way. Rather it's a conventional werewolf story with increased sex and a compassionate look at depression(!). I hadn't expected the narrative to care so much about its own characters. Even some of the more morally grey characters generate sympathy. Much of Animals is focused on fleshing out the three primary characters as they orbit around each other. Not much happens, really, save for intense characterization labour performed.

Similarly, and I'm sure this is unintentional, but Animals is also a sombre and sober critique of monogamy as an institution. The core narrative conflicts in the novel derive from monogamy as this oppressive controlling discourse, forcing characters to act according to how the system wants them to. As I said, I'm not sure this is intentional but it was fascinating. In terms of the rest of the novel, I found it enjoyable, enough that I ploughed through it in good time. I'm definitely going to read more from these two.

Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond, edited by Scott R. Jones (the same as the above Lovecraftian anthology), had many gems, but was a bit tough to read all in one go thanks to the unified theme of Lovecraft's Resonator machine. Each story stars a variation of the machine and a minute variation of the machine's effects. Some of the story use formal or structural trickery to stand out from the pack (the delectable "IPO" by Darrin Brightman) while others use generic signifiers but without any imagination or innovation (“Bug Zapper” by Richard Lee Byer—yawn). A handful were bonkers good: “Film Maudit” by Christopher Slatsk and "Programmed To Receive" by Orrin Grey, just to mention two. The whole anthology, while a bit same-y in the theme, gets an enthusiastic thumbs up due to the unique nature of the theme. Most Lovecraft works deploy the Old Ones and the rest of the menagerie while Resonator avoided any of the obvious names. I'm going to be keeping a close eye on both Scott R. Jones and Martian Migraine Press—I'm really impressed with what they've done so far.

Finally, Matthew M. Bartlett's Gateways to Abomination, a firm contender for one of the best works of short fiction I've ever read and perhaps one of the best works of horror I've ever read. I hesitate to dump too much praise on this slender work for fear of tumbling into the land of hyperbole, but I can't help myself. I want to proselytize for this to all. At first glance, a collection of short and flash fiction, Gateways slowly unfolds a more sinister and dreadful game: rather than a collection of discrete stories, Bartlett uses flash fiction to construct a fictional history of an area in New England under siege by a radio station broadcasting pure malevolence. To say any more would spoil the content—not surprises or twists, per se, but a holistic portrait of evil and fear. Very few books of horror have actually made me feel dread: Bartlett (who is also in the Resonator anthology up above) can rank with the true masters for his unnerving and completely unsettling work. This is truly one of the best books I've read all year and I will voraciously devour as much of his stuff as I can.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Locke & Key

I'm very lucky: I work at a bookstore and sometimes receive free stuff. Most of the freebies come in the form of advanced reading copies (eg. I received Alan Moore's Jerusalem and have barely made a dent) but sometimes the receiving department provides free damaged copies of booksbooks too bent or folded to sell, but too costly to return to the publisher. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the slipcase box set of Locke and Key; it had been seemingly crushed from the top during transit or packing at the warehouse. The box broke slightly and the tops of each individual collection (six volumes) have been irrevocably bent. However, it's still readable and the receiving people were kind enough to give me the entire set. This was providential timing as I had been toying with purchasing the three hardcovers that collected the entire series. I read the comic on my laptop—in one long sitting—and it has stuck with me enough that I wouldn't mind owning the physical versions.

Locke and Key seems like it was designed with me in mind: a single artist in an unbroken run (I lose patience quickly when the artist changes during a run), a limited run (I can't handle ongoing titles), horror (obvs), and seemingly coherent in the whole. Luckily, Hill and Rodriguez pulled off a major feat with this title.

Reading it a second time made more obvious the tight construction of the entire narrative. The creators clearly imagined the story in its totality before constructing the narrative, or perhaps more helpfully, they had the entire fabula in mind before constructing the syuzhet. The fabula is very influenced by how Stephen King structures his stories. An overarching obsession in King's fiction could be articulated as "we may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us." Although, honestly, I could say the same mantra about any work of mainstream horror; after all, what is a ghost but a manifestation of the past? However, King's specific story constructions include the slow unveiling of past events as they impinge on the narrative's present. Say, for example, the history of the town of Derry in King's magnum opus It.

Similarly, in Locke and Key, Hill and Rodriguez control the flow of information about the past. The protagonists' father and friends acted in ways that reverberates into the present, as if they put the pieces in place for the present narrative to pick up. The fabula consists of the first generation moving the keys across the board followed by the second generation picking those keys up. The syuzhet has the creators teasingly trickle out information as it pertains to the relevant present day narrative. 

Over at Electric Literature, Jeff VanderMeer writes about knowing how and when to start and stop a narrative. He writes:
Once you get to the point where you have a sense of your story elements — the general situations, the impetus or driving force — you still have some decisions to make. You have the shape of your story — in this case, depicted as a lizard — but you still have decisions as to where you’re going to begin and where you’re going to end, not just the story but also your individual scenes. Where you end or begin your scenes is not only a question of pacing. It’s also a question of what’s right for the story you’re telling, for the kinds of characters that you’re using, and in the context of their unique characteristics.
His whole lecture is worth a read, even if it you might recoil at prescriptive writing lessons like I do. VanderMeer is articulating something that Hill and Rodriguez have clearly took to heart: knowing where and when to start the story and knowing when to deploy the oft-misused flashback. 

One of my favourite moments in Locke and Key comes around the beginning of the second act: Kinsey Locke, the middle child of the Locke family, finds herself and her friends in the Drowning Cave, a series of caves once used as a military installation. They are looking for some graffiti possibly made by her father when he was a teen. After a narrow escape from drowning, they leave the caves, only for the narrative to reveal that at the bottom of the caves, deep underwater and buried by tons of rocks, there lies the decaying corpse of a woman. It's not until 16 issues later that the creators reveal how that corpse got there and who it was. A reader knowing the full history of the story, the full fabula, will have picked up that the creators hint at this corpse's identity many issues earlier, even earlier than when Kinsey descends into the caves.

Mostly, the showing of the corpse works as foreshadowing, urging the reader onwards. The reader wonders at the identity of the cadaver and hopes that the narrative will show its hand. Additionally, the dead person works to heighten suspense, that the games with keys are anything but play and that whatever secrets the past holds, it includes death. In addition to this, the corpse hints at the level of craft involved with the construction of the syuzhet: it becomes apparent through the masterful control of exposition that the creators did not simply deposit a dead person into the narrative without already knowing how and why it got there. 

Locke and Key works for me in the same way that Alan Moore's narratives work for me: they are tight closed loops. Everything that is introduced at the beginning pays off by the end and the end validates and intensifies the work done by the beginning. What better example of the tightness of Moore's writing than pointing to the first meeting of the Crimebusters in Watchmen?

This scene is, without a doubt, the most important moment in the comic. Everything that happens in the syuzhet derives its impetus from this meeting. The characters assemble for the first time, Adrian gets the idea for the masterplan, Rorschach realizes the inefficacy of organized crime fighting, Dan begins to see Rorschach as insane (though the unhinged vigilante is vindicated in many ways), Jon notices Laurie, Laurie notices Jon (the beginning of their love is what convinces Jon to return to Earth after giving Laurie a chance to convince him), and most of these realizations come from their interactions with the key character and primum movens of the syuzhet, the Comedian. 

Moore and Gibbons revisit the scene two or three times, only though in single panels, to convey the importance of this sequence. It's not until the end of the series that the reader realizes how pivotal this moment is for the entire cast. 

Locke and Key features many moments of this type of construction: where and when keys are placed, lines of dialogue echo across the gulf of years, images reverberate, shiver and vibrate with meaning only after the fact. Tyler Locke, sitting around with Sam Lesser, asks Sam to kill his dad in a brief unthinking joke. This moment is revisited multiple times in multiple ways to underscore the theme of guilt (Tyler and his father Rendell suffer from their guilt, whether misplaced or true) and to underscore the theme of manipulation (Lesser has been convinced by the ghost of Dodge to do this, though Tyler thinks it was he that planted the idea in Lesser's head). Hill and Rodriguez bring up this moment maybe three or four times, each iteration working towards the complex tapestry of thematics that made Locke and Key the strong work it is.

Though, the series isn't perfect. There are multiple instances of well-meaning liberal ignorance, a trait Hill came by honestly from his famous father. There's the key that switches the race of the holder, from white to black and vice versa. It's used in only one issue but the creators stumble badly, making blunt, didactic gestures towards the complex subject of race, an almost irreducible part of American life. There's also the gender key, which is really only used for the syuzhet to obfuscate Dodge's true identity (his actual, in-story motive for using it is fairly empty and unthinking). Unfortunately, in a similar well-meaning but boneheaded move, the creators use the gender bending key to a) stress the binary of gender and b) imply that sexual orientation is tied to gender expression. As a young child, Duncan, Rendell Locke's younger brother, is dismissed a few times by other characters as the kid who likes to become a girl. Of course, the character who likes playing as a girl is the only gay member of the family. Ugh. Again, it's the best intentions of the creators to be progressive and liberal, but it has all the nuance and complexity of a brick falling on the reader's head. Moreover, it's simply wrongheaded.

Still, I love Locke and Key and consider it one of the best comic book series of the 21st century. Even with its faults and its wonky characterization (Tyler Locke never really emerges as anything but a blank slate, a boring white dude with nothing particularly interesting about him; the Spider Jerusalem analogue is irritating and tryhard), I think the series is beautifully constructed and endlessly recompensing. Few narratives reward a second reading; Locke and Key does so admirably.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Film Diary

Carrie (2013)

August 22, 2016

Part of my project to watch 52 films directed by women in a year, I chose the remake of Carrie thinking that it wouldn't be good but at least entertaining. Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry (which I've never seen), had the "audacity" to craft a remake of the "classic" De Palma version and critics took the film to task for not doing anything new or for existing in the first place. I admit my expectations were low, but I was really surprised by Peirce's Carrie and how much I liked it.

While it doesn't do anything particularly new, other than updating the circumstances to the modern day (cellphone videos etc), Carrie feels like a course correction, away from the more problematic exploitative elements of the De Palma version. The famous opening is replicated: Carrie has her first period in the shower and the girls throw tampons at her. Unlike the De Palma version, the camera never really leers at any of the girls nor is there any nudity. Instead, Peirce eliminates any sexual element entirely, leaving the scene uncomfortably disturbing: Carrie is covered by a bloody towel, reaching out with bloodied hands (perhaps the most heavy period ever), on the floor, sobbing with panic and pain.

Similarly, the famous moment during the prom, when Carrie finally unleashes her power, is not played for catharsis but rather disturbs the viewer. At first, it's satisfying for Carrie to reveal herself, for Carrie to proudly come out, if you will, as powerful, but this turns around quite quickly as the deaths of her classmates aren't really gratifying—mostly it's unnerving, as death should be. There is a pair of twins, held down on the floor by Carrie's power, who are crushed by the heels of panicked fleeing teens. Rather than suggesting their fate, Peirce keeps cutting back to their crushed bodies.

The overall feeling from Peirce's direction and the performances is not of exploitative horror but tragedy—hence my suggestion that this version of Carrie is more of a course correction than a remake. Carrie's life is full of pain and misery; it shouldn't be a celebration of her destructive potential. Her mother's death is one she regrets, even if her mother was the source of all her pain. It's a complex relationship that's perhaps too complex for the strict rigours of a horror film, a flaw of Carrie that I can admit to. However, I'm not certain I can agree with the abysmal scores and ratings this film has received. I was never bored—ever—and Peirce's command of visual grammar is top notch. I thought the performances mostly excellent, but this should be no surprise with the force of the two leads. I was very pleased with Carrie but I can appreciate the complaints.

The Muppets (2011)

August 23, 2016

This film is so damn charming. Everything about it is charming, from its dad-joke vaudeville stuff to the unabashed sentimentality of it all. I remember crying so hard when the Muppets themselves, on the show, acknowledged the death of Jim Henson. They're never afraid to own their emotions, to accept how they're feeling about something. However, I did not care for the direction, especially the framing. Conversations are only ever over the shoulder shot-reverse-shot, but when there are singles, the giant head of the actor looms in the frame, like some Tom Hooper garbage. It's suffocating; let the frame breath a little, dammit.

The Invitation (2015)

August 23, 2016

One of the rare slow burn horror films where the slow burn works in its favour. This is a film that isn't eager to reveal too much and it suffers when revelations are at hand. Until the late fifth act (using a Shakespearean structure), the film unfolds with startling efficiency and competency. Some criticisms of the film have focused on the quality of acting, but I wasn't terribly bothered by it. More often, I was engrossed in the careful turning of the screws, not so much in narrative tension, but in violations of the social contracts. For example, the host of the party, the antagonist, if there can be said to be one, keeps returning to "the invitation," the quasi-religious movement, despite the obvious discomfort of his guests. People are made visibly embarrassed by this topic, by John Carroll Lynch's character, but the host trundles on. Similarly, the protagonist finally loses his patience and has a confrontation, but the camera and editing keep lingering on the uneasy countenances of the other guests. The Invitation is more intrigued by the social lubrication and unspoken agreements on how to behave in public. Which doesn't quite mesh with the film's final ambitions, though it strains mightily to connect the dots.

The fifth act is where the film goes off the rails, unfortunately. Rarely is there a horror film where I wasn't into the violence and gore, but The Invitation managed to bore me with its climactic show-stopper. Part of the problem is that the brutality isn't brutal enough. One hopes that the film would go the route of Green Room and make things more felt, more visceral, more impactful. Instead, moments of violence seem perfunctory, far too quick. The camera seems almost shy when it comes to blood, preferring to look away or obfuscate with shadows or dim lighting. Characters are dispatched with little fanfare. While I appreciate the brevity of the violence is meant to be shocking, it feels rote, as if the film isn't even interested in going through with its own logic of escalation.

It helps that the protagonist, Logan Marshall-Green, is exceedingly pretty. I was under the spell of his beard and long hair right from the beginning. He's not an actor with tons of range (his moments of anger are laughable), but his mix of Paul Rudd (yum) and Tom Hardy (yum) was enough to force my eyes to stay on his face.

I also wish that the film hadn't revealed its hand so much with regards to the wine—the subject of few of the poster designs. The camera makes too much of the wine, lingering on it, putting it in close-ups. The result is that the audience knows to expect some poisoning; when it comes, the shock is deflating, perfunctory. Oh well.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Film Diary

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

August 20, 2016

Jean Gabin's Max bumps into a woman from behind while manoeuvring the back hallway of a nightclub, busy with dancers changing costumes. The woman is facing away from Max, but she turns her head towards him. He grips her breasts with both hands and asks, "Do you need a hand carrying these?" After a beat or two, when I was shocked at this film's casual sexism, the film reveals these two know each other and have a sexual relationship. Obviously this does not obviate the sexism of the act, nor does it mediate any of the rest of the film's sexism, such as a woman getting slapped in the face for snorting some cocaine (or snuff, I'm not sure). Or later, when Max confronts the girlfriend of his partner-in-crime, he ruthlessly slaps her and her friend to extract information from them. Admittedly, Touchez pas au grisbi is a film noir and thus fairly misanthropic—but the casual violence seems specifically against women. Yes, people get gunned down, but none of the men seem to suffer the slaps of Max as women do (though I should admit an effeminate bellhop gets slapped a couple times; his crypto-queerness signals that his victimhood still fits in the logic of relaxed violence against people who aren't manly men).

Touchez pas au grisbi (don't touch the loot) has all the coolness and spontaneous charm of the best film noir: the dialogue is highly quotable, the camerawork is athletic and fun, and the overall structure of feeling is of bleakness. Though unsubtle in its thematic unfolding, the film even manages to do some interesting work in terms of ageism: Max berates Riton, his business partner and longtime friend (possibly even companion, if we wanted to do a first year student's queer reading) for running around with younger women and having jowls. Crime is a younger man's game, the protagonist suggests, though ultimately, Max survives over the younger men that seek to ruin him. And survives is the apt word, as the loot he's not to touch ends up slipping from his grasp, meaning he does not thrive or flourish. As with most of the great film noir, the ending packs the most amount of nihilism: Riton is dead, the loot is gone, and Max has nothing, only his public persona, to keep him company through his old age.

To the film's credit, though bothered by the relaxed misogyny, I was always invested in Max's journey, both the emotional one and the literal one. This is mostly due to Jean Gabin's exquisite layered performance: his wrinkled forehead, his tailored suits, his gruff voice and sparkling eyes. There should be no shock that this was the film that provided his career with a second wind; it's a fantastic performance. I've not seen other films with Gabin, but I'm certainly going to try now.

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

August 21, 2016
Blu-ray (projected)

I couldn't get a handle on Leave Her To Heaven until the halfway point. I was expecting a traditional film noir, with elements of crime and perhaps even detection, but the film stymied my expectations. Closer to the halfway point, I couldn't help but wonder where the narrative was going; everything seemed so listless and unmotivated. However, the tumblers all clicked into place during Ellen and Dick's honeymoon at a secluded cabin. Dick's brother Danny and the house handyman have gone to town for supplies, leaving the two newlyweds alone for the first time. Though, Dick was too busy working on his novel to inform Ellen of their solitude. She expresses frustration that the novel has taken up so much of his attention, along with the other people. At this point I realized that Ellen wasn't a traditional femme fatale, the kind looking for wealth or thrills, but a woman struggling to express her sexual desires.

It's fairly old hat to read psycho-sexual subtexts into film noir, but I couldn't stop myself from seeing Ellen as just a woman being denied a fuck from her husband. One of feminism's many projects is to destigmatize female sexual desire and expression; women are sexual creatures too, full of wants and needs, but society has criminalized and stigmatized this aspect of female experience. Ellen is a person unable to express her own desires for sex (a separate thing from love, I might add) because of the classic patriarchal demonizing of female sexuality. She touches her husband, a loving gesture, and then a sound interrupts them before they can bang. She looks through binoculars at a surprise that Dick has set up: her sister and mother are visiting. Obviously, this couldn't be more of a boner killer, and she comes close to losing her temper. The rest of the film has Ellen slowly manipulate or murder people in order to get what she wants: sex without love. Of course this is all subtext, but it's not very subtle.

I didn't love the film but I did like it. Gene Tierney's fiery performance as Ellen struck me as more of a Katherine Hepburn impression than a fully formed character, but I still found her struggles to get fucked to be sympathetic. The film very carefully straddles a line of sympathy and vilification of her, perhaps its strongest suit. Dick seems a fairly inert and boring husband, which strikes me as a purposeful choice on the film's part. The audience is meant to waver in their sympathies for the characters. Depicting Dick as bland and without passion helps the audience vacillate. Similarly, casting Vincent Price as the other suitor was a masterful move, as his drab effeminate attorney character, one of Price's excellent modes of performance, contrasts eventually with his other mode: bombastic full bodied acting. Hilariously, the case that the prosecution mounts might be the absolute worst case I've ever seen depicted on the screen: not only did Price's character not recuse himself from the trial, but he badgers the witnesses with hostile questions about love, all without a single objection from the defence. Though, Price's boom and fury was mesmerizing and made the final twenty minutes simply fly by. Perhaps not the best film noir or melodrama I've seen from this era but still very enjoyable.

I noted that I saw this projected. My friend set up a projector in his house and had me and another friend over for our "cinema club." It was my pick and I had heard great things about this film. Watching this projected in high definition was a fantastic experience: the colours were vibrant, the image was crisp, and the screen was large enough that I could discern details I would have missed at home on the TV setup we have right now. It was a treat and I look forward to seeing more this way.

Scorch Trials (2015)

August 22, 2016

I wish I had seen this film when I was 15: I would have loved it. I'm such a fan of many of the tropes and visuals in the film: the urban space turned desert, with the hulking husks of building looming over the deserted streets; the dank dark cavern covered in the tentacles of branches; the cool blue of laboratories that hint at abominations and crimes against science. On top of these images that I would have devoured at a tender age, the director, Wes Ball, has an incredible talent for action choreography and editing. His command of visual grammar is impeccable in its efficiency and competency. Any setpiece in the film was guaranteed to be wonderfully coherent and exhilarating.

Alas, I found the narrative painfully boring and a hodgepodge of YA clichés such as the adult authority figure intoning that he knows best for the young goodlooking protagonist or the pleasingly ethnic diversity of the cast, though with white people as the romantic leads. There's oblique or vague foreshadowing references to the lead's father, as what is boy's YA literature but wrestling with the spectre of adulthood as manifested by the Father? I'm reminded of one of Adam Roberts' stellar blog posts on the preponderance of neo-Victorianism in YA literature. He writes:
the real focus of all these YA fantasies is the absence of, or failings of, the parents. Books either, like Percy Jackson, style themselves as explicitly about the absent but divine parent figure; or, like Potter, they dramatize the peril in which the children find themselves (and from which they must extricate themselves) as the consequences of what their parents’ generation were unable to finish
His argument is that magic in neo-Victorianist YA is a way of negotiating the complex conflicts inherent in the semantic space of maturity. In The Scorch Trials, magic is replaced by the dogmatism of scientism, that ruthless ideology that rationality and the scientific methods are the only legitimate ways of apprehending the laws of the universe. The film posits a post-apocalyptic North America in which a disease known as The Flare (groan; I loathe the jargon of YA) that cannot be defeated through traditional medicine—the affliction can only be forestalled by injections but never beaten. In other words, it's magic ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). Roberts continues:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it
Magic then is the force which the protagonists use to grapple with their impending entry into adulthood. The psychic pain of growing up is so powerful that realism cannot do it justice; rather, the protagonists must navigate a horribly distorted mirror of reality and they must navigate it violently and spectacularly. The film is a breathless series of chases, with most of the dialogue consisting of constant urgings to "come on! run! hurry! go!" as if the narrative itself is exhorting the characters to move past pubescence into maturity. The Scorch Trials, though visually impressive, never really rises above the classic young adult themes that pervade so much of the field: fathers, unrequited love, calls to and refusals of adventure, etc. I'm excited enough by Wes Ball's direction that I look forward to his work outside of the strict confines of YA literature.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jason Bourne

In a comment, a fellow Letterboxd user, Basil Dababneh, described the work of Michael Mann as “a mix of formal sophistication and ideological crudity,” and this phrase unlocked for me my issues with a different film, Jason Bourne. The film, while superficially entertaining, struggled to reach the highs of the previous Greengrass entries in the series. I consider both Supremacy and Ultimatum to be as close to perfect action films go: raw, visceral, exciting, formally compelling. Jason Bourne was to be a return to form, a reunion between the character that made Matt Damon a superstar and the director that helped him get there. Unfortunately, the film is an underwhelming, but still interesting mess. The major issue is the screenplay, which displays its "ideological crudity" brazenly.

Like the other two Greengrass Bournes, the film is a melange of handheld camerawork, characters walking with purpose, characters staring at computer screens, and frantically edited action sequences. As others have pointed out, the screenplay is a "greatest hits" package of all the elements that made Supremacy and Ultimatum so exciting. Likewise, the plot mobilizes some of the pet themes laboured over by the best two entries: surveillance, security, the liquidity of international borders, the limits of intelligence. Jason Bourne, though, wants to announce its themes more overtly, as if the two previous entries were too subtle (they weren't, but they were Benning-esque in comparison to this).

Many Hollywood blockbusters generate productive discourse thanks to insightful political analysis from critics and theorists. The traditional methodology is a hermeneutics of suspicion: the text withholds its ideological biases only for the perceptive critic to tease it out, revealing the sinister sociological/political/fiduciary implications. Films such as Jason Bourne ask for this critical strategy by gesturing towards real, actual geopolitical events and depicting the diegetic world with the trappings of realism (Bourne, while hypercompetent, doesn't simply fly or shoot laser beams from his eyes). Thus, the purpose of a textual analysis of the Bourne films is to persuade the reader that cultural objects, no matter how escapist, still have the traces of the ideological structures that inform and shape everyday life.

In other words, a critical reading of Jason Bourne using this rhetorical strategy would have me point to the film's interest in the antinomies of security and freedom, surveillance and privacy to demonstrate the film's healthy skepticism about the US government's powers. The film's heavyhanded didacticism should direct the reader to the same ostensibly liberal position that the government, while nominally working for the people's best interests, sometimes overreaches, but there still exists patriots (Bourne) who we can trust. Jason Bourne would like to position itself as "sousveillance" but I caution anybody who would be so generous in their reading.

Sousveillance contrasts with surveillance: in opposition to the "eye in the sky," the single sentry in the Panopticon, sousveillance is observation from below: the prisoners watching the guards. Sousveillance destabilizes the discursive control by watching by mirroring the act or reversing it. Practitioners of this strategy deploy small, wearable technology to remind those in power that watching, as a political act, works both ways, though this not be literal. Jason Bourne gestures towards sousveillance in multiple ways: the major opening setpiece occurs during a protest at the Greek parliament, with people watching from their homes, in the street, participating by recording. Later, users of a social media site concerned with privacy assault the CEO with cameraphones and flash photography, as his vested interest in their privacy makes him their hero. Even Bourne himself using tracking technology, GPS and cellphones, to manipulate the dramatic outcomes in his favour. In other words, Jason Bourne wants viewers to associate the film and its heroes with sousveillance as an act of necessary patriotism.

Yet, the aesthetics of the film do not match its thematic concerns. I can think of no other film series that fetishizes the act of looking at computer screens more than the Bourne films. This saga is positively obsessed with screens. The situation rooms in the CIA are teeming with screens of many sizes: small cellphones, medium computer screens, gigantic monitors lining the wall displaying endless noise of information and graphics. The buzzing of information crowds all the screens, crowds the room with literal noise as analysts and technicians read aloud pertinent information, all while the named characters frown at screens. Likewise, Bourne and his ally Nicky frown at screens gathering intelligence from the intelligence service. All the characters require screens for their drama to play out. Without screens, the cast would have no way of connecting with each other. Most characters in the film barely meet face to face. Instead, their interactions are through technology and screens: phones, looking at pictures of each other. Only until the character needs to be beaten up or killed do they meet face to face with either the antagonist or the protagonist. If characters rarely meet in person, much of the acting interaction is done with screens. As screens do not emote, the actors must perform affective labour for the audience. By positioning the screens as so endlessly important, the resultant sympathy is towards technology. With Bourne and Nicky in positions of oppressed (by the government), the audience should align themselves with the necessity of sousveillance. Yet, as aforementioned, the aesthetics do not entirely match this conclusion.

There's a single shot that sums up the ideological crudity of Jason Bourne: when cutting to an overhead location shot of Las Vegas, the film highlights the Trump Hotel and Casino by situating it in the middle of the composition. Other location establishing shots in the film have centered on narratively relevant buildings: the CIA's home base, the Lincoln Memorial, the office complex in London. Yet, the film chooses the Trump Hotel as its focal point to establish Las Vegas. The chase sequence through the Strip doesn't utilize the Trump Hotel at any point, making its central position in the shot more aesthetic than narrative. The garish opulence of the Trump Hotel, a sign of rapacious and ruthless capitalism if there ever was one, matches the loving glances taken by the camera's eye of screens and computers and technology. There's an classic Hollywood liberal distaste of excess, until that excess can be annexed for aesthetic pleasure: a giant gold building, a wall of glowing computer screens, a sleek Dodge Charger (which the film is at pains to specify for the audience), iPhone screens, silky icons and lines drawn across screens, a USB stick in the vague shape of a trumpet with "ENCRYPTION" splashed on its side.

No matter how pointed the film's thematic gestures towards a liberal suspicion of governance, the aestheticization of violence and film's love affair with technology upsets the ideological coherence. Thus, instead of a liberal Hollywood blockbuster, Jason Bourne ends up uncomfortably Republican in its insistence on patriotism, privacy, smaller government, and a free market. One of the major subplots of the film has the CIA Director meddling in the affairs of the aforementioned CEO. His company cannot grow freely and honestly as the Director keeps intervening, demanding access to data, etc. Though the film would love to be perceived as liberal in the healthy skepticism of governance, Jason Bourne ends up shrilly advocating for individual patriots who violently rebel against an unjust system. This is why I caution against reading sousveillance into the text. This is why I caution against the traditional method of unveiling the text's intended ideological textures. By presenting these antinomies of liberalism in such aestheticized ways, the film betrays its own ideological incoherence. It's a film that isn't secretly Republican or liberal; it's a film that doesn't know what it wants to say about anything though it wants to look cool.

My Depression

I wrote a short piece on Medium about depression. I would be grateful if you read it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

That there exists a new Ghostbusters film which stars four of my favourite comedy stars and is explicitly feminist is perhaps the best gift I could have received in this all-too disappointing year of 2016 (RIP Bowie and Prince). I haven't frequented the theatre this year as much as 2015, if only because the usual Hollywood dreck (that I can't get enough of) hasn't been as compelling. However, the promise of a feminist Ghostbusters is more than ample incentive to patronize my local cinema. I had eagerly gobbled up the details of production during the long road to its release and I had tumbled, almost against my will, into the vortex of misogynistic and/or irrational hatred of the film from Ghostbros. Helpless but to witness, I've tried to avoid engaging with the Ghostbros, as they've been relentless in their vitriol. This afternoon, Monday July 18th, 2016, Leslie Jones is being inundated with specific racial abuse on Twitter, which makes me want to cry as I can't imagine celebrating the successful release of my big screen début with gendered racism. Still, the film has had a decent opening, and the haters gon' hate regardless.

In an effort to evade confronting the contempt heaped upon the film from misguided Ghostbros, I'll stick to proselytizing for the franchise and remain focused on this reboot—which I saw twice this weekend. There was no chance that I was going to miss opening night of the reboot of the film I love more than any other film. My partner and I, though forced to attend a 3D showing, were there, excited and enthused (more so enthused for my excitement, from my partner's perspective). It's hard to detail exactly why the franchise has captured my passion so fully: it could be the mixture of supernatural spectacle and nerds not typically Hollywood; it could be the sarcastic and sardonic wit that permeates the film; it could be the classic outsider is vindicated narrative. The original film has an unholy mixture of virulently memetic attributes: the costumes, the song, the dialogue, the visuals. It's something only accident could produce, a happy accident of course. I've seen the film probably over 50 times, tying it with its sequel for the movie I've seen the most. I wore out the VHS my family owned. Like so many white dude nerds, Ghostbusters spoke our language, that intelligence, sarcasm, and belief in yourself would win out over the bullies (so confusingly depicted as the EPA). It's practically cliché for me to articulate my undying love for the original two films. Yet, I say so just to provide the necessary context, to suggest, even a minuscule of it, the amount of excitement I had in advance of the reboot.

What I wanted, what I expected from the film, was the usual Paul Feig style antics, both heartfelt and witty, and the spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster. I've been following Feig since Bridesmaids, and each of his films I've seen in the theatre. Melissa McCarthy, one of my favourite supporting actors from Gilmore Girls (SOOKIE ST JAMES FOREVER), has been a dependable and growing muse for Feig. Watching McCarthy grow as a performer and watching Feig grow as a director has been very fulfilling. While I thought The Heat was great, Feig stretched his formal skills with Spy. I didn't love Spy as a comedy, but his action direction had ameliorated in many ways. There's a knife fight in a kitchen in the film, and I would happily rate it as the best action scene of the year. Thus, I anticipated enjoying how Feig would present more CGI, spectacle-oriented action. Plus, add in the mix four of my favourite comedy actors: Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones have been stealing scenes on SNL for a couple years now, and putting them beside more professional comedians like McCarthy and Kristin Wiig could only be hilarious. 

Did the film meet my expectations, my wishes, my hopes? I'm pleased to report that after two viewings of the film, I love the movie. I'm not worried that with time, my estimation of the film will drastically decrease, though the flaws apparent in Ghostbusters might gnaw at me and prevent my full enjoyment during a third viewing, months down the road. The film isn't perfect, by any means, but I was pleased as punch. In fact, I can also report that during the more iconic bits (the opening, McKinnon's solo action showcase), I literally teared up. There's something to be said about the fact that this film stars four women, one of which is black, one of which is an open lesbian, two of which have non-typical body shapes for an expensive Hollywood blockbuster. As a cherry on top of that pleasant reality, Ghostbusters passes the Bechdel Test in multiple ways. This doesn't automatically make a good film, but it's certainly an excellent scaffold upon which to build a good film.

I loved the colours in the film. I knew from the trailer how colourful and dynamic the designs of the ghosts would be, but even outside of the action sequences, the film doesn't shy away from colour. The Chinese restaurant in which they make their headquarters is full of rich reds and browns, without ever tumbling over the line into the muddiness of a maroon or a "burnt umber" or a "redwood." I love the proton packs, the pulsating reds. I especially love the neon reds of the PKE Meter. Even the deep gorgeous greens of the apocalyptic finale provided me with aesthetic pleasure. In other words, this is a film that's lovely to look at.

I was initially disappointed by the climax of the film, as it felt perfunctory and routine, part of the paradigm of blockbusters, wherein the world itself must be at stake. But on a second viewing, the climax improved a lot for me as it was a bit tighter than I remembered. The narrative goes as follows: the Ghostbusters beat up some ghosts with teamwork; Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) gets an action scene to herself, the kind that will inspire countless women and girls to cosplay; they regroup, and fight the big bad, which takes up very little screen time, less than I recalled. The Holtzmann scene was enough for me to squeak in excitement.

Ghostbusters is meant to marry the action spectacle with comedy, so its reboot should potentially do the same. The action I felt was terrifically fun. There's a scene in which Kate McKinnon's character is defenestrated, leaving Leslie Jones to hold onto her hand while fighting a possessed Melissa McCarthy. Feig cuts around this masterfully, just as with the knife fight in the kitchen in Spy. The choreography of the fight, while not nearly as breathless as in a Hong Kong action film, unfolds like a mini-drama unto itself, with obstacles (McCarthy; McKinnon falling), triumphs (Jones has longer arms than McCarthy, and holds her at bay), and reversals (McCarthy demonstrates levitation). In terms of pure technical skill, it's the best action scene in the whole film. The Holtzmann sequence, though, by sheer exuberance and charm, succeeds as being the finest bit entirely.

In terms of comedy, I laughed more the first time around. Hollywood comedies have recently been stuck in a rut, thanks to Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan, and even Feig himself. The paradigm is improvised lines of ever-escalating absurdity instead of actual writing: a dadaist simile that deploys a pop culture reference. The recent "comedy" Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is this paradigm at its nadir. Already, Hollywood comedy struggles with visual storytelling, so to export all comedic labour onto the shoulders of moderately talented absurdly attractive "comedians" does the film no favours. Luckily, many jokes in Ghostbusters hit the mark. Not all. I especially loved the queef joke, but then again, I find flatulence to be intrinsically funny. Some of the non sequiturs and dadaist improv bits (eg. a flying baby) had all the comedic thrust of a falling rock. Still, I laughed and chuckled at some stuff. The problem with dadaist improv stuff is that it mostly works in the shock. A repetition of the same joke won't have nearly the same effect. Additionally, the film isn't nearly as complicated in its structuring of jokes. Consider how infinitely watchable Hot Fuzz is; Ghostbusters doesn't really reward multiple watches in the same way. This will hinder my love of the film in the long run, but it's not enough to sink the entire thing.

Really, the major downside to the film is the abbreviated narrative. The women capture one ghost and then are immediately on their way to saving the world. An opportunity for a montage was missed, especially since the characters set up the potential for a montage! In one scene, Abby (McCarthy) lists for Erin (Wiig) the people that need the help of a team of Ghostbusters, ie a chance for a montage. This would have given the sequence of events some time to breathe, as it feels like the film's narrative occurs over a day or two.

If these, then, are the flaws, let us return to the positives, the many riches to be found in the movie. It's not ideal that Leslie Jones's character isn't a scientist, at least for the political optics of the character's race. There are black women in the sciences (shocking, I know) so it's not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the film might have missed a thematic opportunity: one of the overarching plotlines of the film details the soft sexism that women in STEM fields aren't taken seriously. Additionally, the sexism and soft racism faced by women of colour in STEM must be even more pronounced, especially if they speak in a pronounced AAVE accent. It would have benefited the film to have Jones's character be a scientist who isn't taken seriously by her peers due to her gender, her race, and her mannerisms. To have her expertise finally validated by the narrative would have been unspeakably inspiring, I'm sure.

That being said, I did love that Jones's character is competent and nerdy in her own way. The film has a deep affection for the enthusiasm of nerds, as Holtzmann, Yates, and Gilbert are all outsider nerds who love what they do. Their excitement is infectious. While Tolan's interests lay in the more material aspects of the world, she still gets multiple opportunities to demonstrate her competence and confidence. Never in the film are the quirks of the characters the butt of a malicious joke, and this is eminently true of Patty's fashion choices.

When one of the protagonists says to Patty, "you're a genius," and Patty replies, "I'm a Ghostbuster," I actually teared up. As a white cis male, I've always had representation. I can't imagine how fucking awesome it would be for a young black woman to see Patty Tolan, a 50 year old super tall black woman, in a blockbuster, announce that she is a part of one of the most famous teams in cinematic history.

Melissa McCarthy's ponytail and smile thrilled in a way that, I'm ashamed to admit, verged on erotic. While it was so stupendously refreshing that the leads were never subject to the territorializing male gaze, McCarthy's beautiful face, fantastic costuming, and performance provided me with the frisson of libidinal excitement. I mean, look at this picture and tell me she doesn't tickle your fancy:

The scene where Patty drives up in the hearse unfolds with a joke about a corpse. When Erin says, "Did you check for a corpse?" Abby giggles at the thought, and it feels so genuine, so charming, that if I wasn't already in love with McCarthy (again, SOOKIE ST. JAMES FOREVER), this would've done it.

I love that the characters, while not perfectly drawn, feel iconic to me already. I have no problems remembering all of their names: Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Lillian Holtzmann, Patty Tolan. They seem so real to me. Part of the appeal of this movie is for sure the allure of hanging out with the characters, especially as the film refuses to indulge in the same petty squabbles that plague other cinematic women: they don't compete among each other for a man, they aren't subject to the male gaze, they genuinely like each other. The affection they have for each other is infectious.

Ultimately, the film won't have the same longevity as the original. It's just not as well constructed. Perhaps the sequel will improve on this first reboot. Perhaps the cameos (which were fine, whatever) won't feel as forced. Perhaps the narrative will have time to breathe. But mostly, I hope the sequel retains the flavour of four badass competent smart women who are funny and fun to hang out with.