Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

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My most immediate impression of this film is how luscious all the practical effects look. Everything is wet and fleshy and there’s a great sense of tactility that always seems to be missing when one watches a CGIed film.

The film has an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes that’s really left me scratching my head because it’s such a neat little horror film, so much so that I’m not quite sure what else critics could ask for. It’s at times like this when you really question the value in giving everything a rating.

Sure, the second half/third act of the film falls into some pretty tried and tested horror tropes. But not every film needs to be ground-breaking! C’mon!

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Anyway, very briefly, Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is about a small town, family-owned morgue and crematorium outfit that receives a Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) one night and has been tasked with identifying Cause of Death. The whole film takes place in the span of one night and over the length of time it takes the father-son team to complete the autopsy.

The workaday treatment of the horror of conducting an autopsy is very much in line with André Øvredal’s other critically acclaimed offering Troll Hunter (2011). Troll Hunter is a mockumentary that follows a troll hunter on his hunt for trolls in the dark woods. The matter-of-fact way in which trolls and the hunt for them by a professional troll hunter are presented in the mock documentary effectively normalises their existence – even their more supernatural attributes like being able to sniff out Christians (as if Christian blood gave off a different scent).

Similarly, Autopsy very quickly normalises the idea of working in a morgue cum crematorium and conducting autopsies. This setting on the outset of the film makes it very easy for Autopsy to turn tensions up to eleven-ty when the supernatural shit really hits the fan.

Autopsy feels to me like it’s part of a tradition of foreign horror films. Very much like the original Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2000) there’s a great atmosphere of dread and an attempt to explain what’s going on but at the end of the day there’s no real explanation and the horror or the curse lives on and gets passed on to the next unsuspecting soul.

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What tickled me even more is that the film flirts with the idea of offering an explanation only to undercut this at the end. The police-procedural format and the fact-finding dive into the innards of Jane Doe does everything to ramp up the supernatural tension in the film. Each unusual, logic-defying discovery leads to more confusion and more confirmation that there is something not right with this body. But when it comes to supplying characters and audiences with an explanation, there is none.

This refusal to offer any kind of working explanation for what the curse is or how to undo it is a smart move because all too often, horror films fall flat when they try and tell you why the supernatural happens. Oftentimes it’ll involve calling in an expert academic who will pull out some dusty tome with step-by-step instructions on how to vanquish the evil. In the case of Autopsy, the film sidesteps all of that unbelievable logic.

Instead, the processes that so often bring rationality to a situation, like an autopsy and forensic findings that help to provide evidence to solve a murder, only reveal these quaint, antiquated traditional/ herbal practices meant to subdue evil. They only confirm the body’s supernatural state, but say nothing about the source of its power.

We’re led to believe at first that each new layer that the forensic father-son team peel back and discover is releasing some kind of evil that, till that point, had been bound by the moon flower, and the shroud with the roman numerals, and the tattoos, but then we remember that the blood drenched murder scene that opens the film was also caused by the body with all its ritualistic trappings still intact.

Then we’re led to believe that maybe the piercing analysis offered by forensic science might suggest some kind of solution to this 17th century mystery. Nope. No dice. The body of Jane Doe just continues to fuck with everyone right till the very end.

I read some reviews that tried to rationalise the signs left on the body as marks of misogyny and that the trail of dead bodies is some kind of revenge for this. I suppose the signs of corsetry, Jane Doe’s backstory, and the deaths of the two male protagonists might lend themselves to this theory. But it doesn’t account for the female characters who die, and there’s also nothing to prove that the evidence of violence on the body was inflicted by men only.

The way in which critics and characters try to explain the body of Jane Doe really reflect the etymology of the word “autopsy” – Autos meaning “self”, and optos meaning “seen”. There’s a suggestive layering of self and other in the etymology of the word that is exemplified by Tommy Tilden (Brian Fox), the father, who puts his cat, Stanley, that has been gravely injured, out of its misery and believes he can do the same for Jane Doe. But really, it seems that he is the one who wants to be put out of the lingering misery of surviving his wife.

The open-endedness of this text (and the body as text) really leaves it up to the viewer to conduct their own autopsy to discover the meaning of the film. The lack of an explanation for what caused/created Jane Doe, what she wants or why she does what she does gives the audience a lot to work with. The film also frustrates the traditional horror narrative ending which is a return to the status quo and a reassertion of the norm – of logic and rationality. Instead, just like with what we’ve seen of Asian horror films, the inexplicable horror just gets passed on.

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Elle (2016)

My interest in Elle was sparked by a review I read previously by someone else that was written a while ago. It described Elle as a “rape-revenge comedy.” These are genres you just never expect to see together. The fact that the film was nominated for the Oscars and Golden Globes and a variety of other awards, suggests that somehow, Paul Verhoeven has managed to make this weird genre mesh-up work.

In preparation to write a review and some decent commentary on Elle I actually decided to do some prep work by reading up on the Rape-Revenge genre in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Chapter 3: Getting Even). While it was a good read and really enlightening, I was disappointed to find that the critical view she espouses is a little dated. While Clover focused on Rape-Revenge film texts like Last House on the Left (1972), Deliverance (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1977), etc., that made use of a city-country dynamic to underscore the onscreen conflicts, this was never the case in Elle.

Instead I found myself thinking that filmic representations of psychopaths as a way of reading Elle would be more relevant to the narrative Verhoeven was telling.

In a typical rape-revenge narrative, the film starts with the rape that is filmed in disconcerting detail with the camera’s gaze either lingering on the sexual violence or the act being edited into violent choppy cuts and then inserted into the narrative as sudden flashbacks that are as much an assault on the victim as it is on the audience because both are made to flinch and cringe every time they are ambushed with the rapist.

This is followed up by a planning or training period where the female character transforms herself from victim into avenging angel seeking vengeance for herself and/or for other female characters who’ve been similarly assaulted.

The narrative then culminates in a grisly conclusion where the bloodletting onscreen is orchestrated to reach the same bloody intensity as the psychic and physical violence of the rape.

Elle seems to have successfully flipped this narrative. There is no bloody conclusion, and very little preparation for vengeance. This is because there seems to be no victim. Or rather that the victim is so sociopathic that she doesn’t behave like one and doesn’t seem to see herself as a victim. And if she doesn’t think of herself as a victim, what right do we, the audience, have to think of her as one?

Instead, Verhoeven’s film seems to be very emphatically suggesting that despite all the syntactic elements of a rape-revenge narrative (including the rape, the purchase of the hatchet and the pepper spray, and the death-by-blugeoning of the rapist), Elle, semantically, is not about the same concerns. It is not about a woman rising up to avenge herself because she is not the disempowered individual in this narrative.

We see this in her day job where she is both an accomplished former publisher of literary works and current owner of a gaming company. We see this in her personal life where she is financially secure and the sole provider for her dependents (mother and son). And we see this in her deviant sexual preferences (for married men and willingness to enter into an S&M relationship with her rapist).

Furthermore, she doesn’t need to get her hands dirty to exact her revenge, by unmasking her rapist, stripping him of the anonymity that empowers him, naming him, and refusing to be the victim in violent sexual encounters, she unmans him almost literally by depriving him of his turn-on and his erection.

Thus, despite the backlash against this film based on claims that it trivialises or dismisses rape with its comedic undertones, the film can be read as a more progressive rape-revenge narrative instead.

This is based on two reasons firstly rape has been said to be more a crime of power rather than a sexual crime, and secondly, the rape-revenge narrative itself suffers from an undercurrent of victim-blaming that often slides under the radar given all the attention focused on the empowered female character who saves herself.

For revenge fantasies to work, there must be something worth avenging – something egregious enough to justify hideous retaliation. In the case of rape-revenge films, that something has to do not only with the rape, but with the power dynamic between men and women that makes rape happen in the first place, and in the second, that makes it so eminently avengeable.

-Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p144

In other words, the source of pleasure in the genre comes in part from the fact that the victim has been doubly raped. Firstly, by the fact that she is a victim everyday in various small ways as part of a society that privileges the patriarch and secondly, by the rape in the film. However, as Verhoeven so clearly sets up in Elle, Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is never in a position of lower power except in the moment of the rape.

The other way in which Elle is a progressive rape-revenge narrative, is that embedded in the genre is an element of victim-blaming:

[It] must surely be the case that there is some ethical relief in the idea that if women would just toughen up and take karate or buy a gun, the issue of male-on-female violence would evaporate. It is a way of shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim: if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a guy or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliche, asking for it.

Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p143

Thus in the case of Elle, the rape is an assault and an act of violence, yes, but it is an act between individuals of equal standing in society. Furthermore, the rape acts as a moment that pierces the veil that Michele has drawn over herself to mask her sociopathy.

In the narrative following the incident, we see her destroy her ex-husband’s car bumper with her car by backing into it repeatedly; leave a toothpick in her ex-husband’s new squeeze’s appetizer; come on to her neighbour who is a married man; deliberately destroy her best friend’s marriage by telling her that she has been sleeping with her husband just as they look like they’re getting back together; and various other small incidents like that. Thus the rape causes a rupture in the symbolic realm of Michele’s existence, forcing her to confront her past with her father who murdered 27 people, and get to grips with the reality of her character.

(Although… my fiance pointed out that all these little behaviours could be status quo for her and have nothing to do with the rape at all. I maintain that given the medium and where the narrative chose to start and where it ends, the rape is meant to give an additional layer of meaning to all her following behaviours.)

Thus, at the end of the day, despite all the trappings of the rape-revenge genre, this is not a rape revenge film. It’s more about two sociopaths going at one another.

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Parasyte: The Maxim (2014-2015)

Parasyte: The Maxim is an anime the came out Fall 2014 and ended its run some time in March 2015. A total of 24 episodes, this anime was made by the anime studio Madhouse that is also responsible for other great anime series like Trigun (1998, 26 episodes), Death Note (2006-2007, 37 episodes), and most recently One-Punch Man (2015, 12 episodes). It also made the visually stunning Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000).

One of the best things about this series is that although it was only recently adapted into an anime series, the source material, Hitoshi Iwaaki’s manga, also known as Kiseiju, was actually written between 1988 and 1995.

Anime fans who grew up watching anime in the 1990s will tell you that this already sets the series a cut above two-thirds of the anime they watch that are laced with filler episodes and end with completely unsatisfying cliff-hanger or rushed endings. This long-time problem that beset various anime productions stems from how the weekly or daily release of serialised anime episodes based on the manga would invariably outstrip the mangaka’s ability to produce new manga chapters in time for them to be adapted into anime episodes. Thus, anime fans just had to deal with never being graced with any actual closure to their favourite childhood anime series.

However, because Parasyte: The Maxim is based on a complete work, the series comes replete with a well-rounded ending that ties up all the loose ends. The main plot lines are condensed into 24 intense, well-paced sometimes action-packed and gory, sometimes  deeply meaningful episodes. The main themes are delved into and explored all the way to their logical conclusions.

If you want a sense of how well this series did, just go to YouTube and look for reviews on it. You’ll find endless pages of people raving about Parasyte: The Maxim. The success of the manga and the anime has also resulted in two live-action films that unfortunately received mixed (mostly bad) reviews.

Still, binge-watching this thing was really one of my best ideas since coming back to Singapore after my MA.

There are a few things about the series that stood out to me and I’m just gonna discuss them in a very scattered, ad hoc manner. I don’t really intend to build this up into any kind of thesis about the series, only to point out some stuff about the mix of genres (Body Horror & Slice of Life), make some comparisons (The Body Snatchers, The Thing), and draw some connections between the series and socio-historical events in Japan (Zainichi & Zaitokukai)  that I haven’t seen anyone else do yet.

Aight. First up. To be perfectly honest, I only knew of this entire franchise when the first movie came out. It was the poster and the unusual colour scheme that caught my eye. This is in part because I had just watched a YouTube video analysing movie poster designs.

The pastel blue and the amount of light filling the poster that even casts a halo about Izumi Shinichi gave it a kind of pleasant, light-weight feel that one might associate more with Slice of Life/Romantic Comedy/High School Drama film and anime genres. But this choice of colouration is thrown into sharp contrast with the mutated hand in the foreground. And if anyone watches the trailer, the contrast between the tone set up by the poster and the amount of body horror contained in the actual movies/series becomes even more obvious.

So my first thought was that Body Horror and Slice of Life/RomCom/High School Drama are not genres that normally go together. But the more I thought about it the more I saw what a great fit these genres really are for each other because of the way the contrast brings out some of the main themes in the series.

One of the main questions that runs through the series is this question of who has a right to live – is it a matter of survival of the fittest as the alien parasyte, Migi, argues, or a matter of ensuring the community/society survives through the ability to embrace self-sacrifice, an instinct that seems to be predicated on the ability to feel emotions like love. Or is this “emotion” just our biology tricking us into sacrifice ourselves for the survival of the species? hmm…

Either way, a lot of the series comes down to question of being able to access the softer parts of ourselves – our emotions. We are also made to question the authenticity of the characters’ emotions and how they are ennobled by them. Oftentimes, emotions especially those like despair and love are held as benchmarks of a character’s humanness.

This reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Thing (1982).

In Don Siegel’s 1956 classic, a lot of the differences between the pod people and actual people are hinted at through the dialogue rather than through visual representation. For instance, when Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) talked about how her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) is not himself, the best description she can give about what is wrong is only that something is “amiss.” Furthermore, in the scene where they find Jack Belicec’s (King Donovan) pod person, there is not close-up of the pod person. It is only after Becky Driscoll’s (Dana Wynter) conversion that we finally get a close-up of a pod person. What is truly horrific is that she is not some visibly monstrous prosthetic. Becky Driscoll, the actress Dana Wynter, IS the alien being. There is no way of separating alien from human, they are one and the same. The sheer absence of any other visual representation of how these pod people, who are perfect simulacra of their human counterparts, are different points towards how it is only the invisible, unverifiable inner world of emotions that marks the difference between human and alien. The rising hysteria in the musical score in the scene, which is itself something that can only be heard and felt but not seen, serves to drive this point home.

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As a side note, for those of you who are familiar with Invasion of the Body Snatchers  and its various incarnations (eg. the 1978 remake of the same title and the 1993 remake titled just Body Snatchers), you’ll know that this issue of emotions features very heavily in all the films. For instance, in the 1978 version, Leonard Nimoy, an actor who creates an intertextual link between the 1978 remake and the StarTrek franchise, in which he plays the emotion eschewing Vulcan, Spock, is the character who delineates the pod people’s worldview of an “untroubled world… free of anxiety, fear, and hate” but also faith, beauty and love.

On top of this, Kevin McCarthy who plays the lead, Dr. Bennell, in the 1956 original, has a cameo in the remake where he runs down the highway banging on cars and shouting, “They’re here already! You’re Next!” His hysterics are shrugged off by an apathetic public and comes to serve as an indictment not of the aliens but the human race for losing touch with the one thing that makes us human, our ability to care for one another. The 1993 remake set on a military base further highlighted our estrangement from ourselves and our interchangeability with pod people through the use of a setting that actually encourages the compartmentalisation of emotions

Ironically, it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) that takes this moment of existential horror even further. The delightfully gruesome moments of body horror scattered throughout the entire film belies a deeper layer of existential horror – the suggestion that the simulation is beyond skin deep. This is seen time and time again throughout the film where until the characters reveal themselves to be infected in a moment of body horror, they are able to react and emote like any other human being so much so that right at the end of the film, audiences are left genuinely wondering if it is Childs (Keith David) or MacReady (Kurt Russell) who is infected.

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Parasyte: The Maxim revisits these questions about what it means to be human and whether it is our physical form, genetic make-up, emotions and/or actions that define us. Parasyte‘s own angle to the question is fleshed out in Shinichi’s moments of existential crisis over his own identity. After a pivotal moment in the series, Migi and Shinichi have their respective genetic codes so intermingled that Shinichi becomes more level-headed and pragmatic (and totally more badass), but somewhat less emotional.

What I really appreciated about the way the narrative and characters developed is that Shinichi’s angst over his inability to feel sadness, loneliness, despair becomes a credible plot point and not just an excuse for melodrama. The various relationships he tries to maintain in the moments of the plot that conform to the RomCom/High School Drama generic conventions actually feed into these larger questions the series tries to deal with.

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Other than the main character and his parasyte, the other character that best embodies (hur hur… geddit geddit? body horror… embody… nevermind) this thematic line of questioning is Tamiya Ryoko, a woman whose biology has been fundamentally transformed by the alien parasyte. As an experiment, Ryoko decides to have sex with a male human-parasyte hybrid to get herself pregnant. For the longest time the viewer is left wondering what her intentions towards the baby are (born completely human, by the way). Eventually though in a scene that aptly captures the two sides of her character – alien and human – she walks through a hail of bullets, shielding the child with her body so she can deliver it safely into Shinichi’s arms before dying.

To tie off this first part of the my observations of Parasyte: The Maxim, I wanna say that the series’ emphasis on crafting moments of perfect human emotion whether it be the various incarnations of romantic love, platonic love between friends/nakama (Migi & Shinichi), or the bond between mother and child serve as the perfect counterpoint to the violence and the body horror seen in other parts of the series in order to give real weight to the kinds of questions it raises about what it means to be human.

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Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

In my previous post I talked about how lovely it feels when the CGI introduced into a film is imbued with a specific narrative value. This is true of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well.

Most reviews online readily point out that this is a film that tries to embody the look and feel of the 1960s by making it not just the film’s subject matter but by infusing the form of the film with recognisable signs of film stock used in the 1960s – i.e. the use of “cigarette burns” in the top right hand corner of the cell that indicate the end of a reel of film; and the use of the old Universal logo.

But what I found most satisfying about the film was that the seemingly run-of-the-mill use of CGI to lengthen the creepy little girl’s jaw and turn her eyes a milky white in the trailer was not run-of-the-mill at all. These specific effects were chosen because of the specific nature of the ghosts in Ouija.

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The other thing that I really liked and appreciated about the film was the use of the ear as the point of entry for evil. It’s a very classical choice of body orifice to use.

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“Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment” (Act I Sc V, 59-64)

It is how Claudius poisons Hamlet’s father, the king, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is also a very gender neutral body orifice to use, and one that is grossly under utilised in horror films.

Most possession horror films, you will find, feature possessed women, girls or girls on the cusp of womanhood. Regan from The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), and even Carrie from Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), whose mother believed her telekinesis came from her being possessed by satan.

In more recent films you have Angela Vidal from [REC] (2007), Mia from the Evil Dead (2013), Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body (2009). The filmmakers of the The Exorcist even made a production choice to change the gender of the possessed child which was based on a true story about the possession of a boy, Roland Doe (a pseudonym given to the victim by the Catholic church to protect the boy’s identity).

The reason why females are the preferred possessed is because of the fluid nature of their gender. This is especially so in the case of the classics. Carrie and Regan were both female protagonists on the cusp of womanhood. Their adolescent natures and the fact that they are both menarcheal women makes their identity especially fluid and impossible to think of them and their bodies as closed vessels. In the case of Rosemary, she is in the unique position of being with child and again this is a time of great change in a woman and a state that suggests an openness to her identity because where does mother end and child begin in a pregnant body?

In the case of Ouija, however, even though the three main protagonists are women, the use of the ear as the orifice through which evil is spread seems to raise the stakes as we see male characters falling prey to possession and the insidious forces at work.

In addition to this, the spread of evil is not from some messy exchange of fluid that we’ve come to expect in horror films (no projectile pea soup vomit or gushing fountains of blood). Instead, evil is spread through these sibilant whispers poured into the ears of ambushed victims.

We never hear what these words are, but one would assume that they are some kind of language. And I thought this was so interesting because language exists in the realm of the Symbolic, the most codified and rational of the three phases of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real).

However, the forceful removal of words, language, and a means of communication from the souls of the victims of torture that have been forced to live out all eternity in the walled off cellar of the house, forced the re-emergence of language to perform an inverted role of giving form to the Real. The Real, according to Lacan’s translator, Alan Sheridan, can be thought of as “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.” In other words, that which escapes language.

This violation of the order of the Symbolic through the return of the Real represented through a kind of reverse language that the spirits speak then represents a different kind of abject that comes to the fore in the film.

The words, the whispers, the spirits, the shameful history that America gave asylum to many a war criminal fleeing from Germany after WWII to find safe haven amongst its masses becomes the effluvia, the abjected bits that the characters are forced to confront, and for the audience where the horror resides.

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I suppose it’s customary to end off a film review with a conclusive statement about whether I liked the film or not. So in case that wasn’t clear in how I waxed theoretical about it, YES, I LIKED IT! It’s a good horror film. It manages its share of jump scares pretty well too, but towards the end the film felt like it was trying to overcompensate a little for the lack of jump scares at the start. So consider yourself warned.

The Accountant (2016)

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday.

This is the end

Of Solomon Grundy.

I caught The Accountant today which was listed in June as one of the top 10 most anticipated films for the  second half of 2016. I’ve also been reading around to see what reviewers have been saying about it and I’d like to address some of it and chip in on the discussion as well.

Plot and Structure in The Accountant (2016)

Yes, it moves back and forth between the present and some extended flashback sequences. The flashbacks help to reveal bits of the plot from “Christian Wolff’s” (Ben Affleck) childhood and recent past that lead up to the current moment. But, No, this is not overly confusing the way some of the reviewers have been complaining.

I did feel, however, that the film lost its own narrative train of thought in certain parts that resulted in some distracting holes in the story-telling.

So here is my list of questions that would probably make more sense to you after you’ve watched the film:

  1. What happened between Wolff and Braxton (Jon Bernthal)?
  2. What’s so special about Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) that prompts Wolff to help her?
  3. I’m still unclear on how Dana’s prom dress story relates to anything Wolff is trying to do
  4. What is it about watching Dana sleep on the couch that reminds him of the “blood first” flashback?
  5. What is this “moral code” The Accountant supposedly lives by? The film certainly gives you examples of this code in action but never actually explains what it is.
  6. And if his dad is the source of this code, what’s so moral about siccing his military combat-trained sons on a bunch of young teenage hooligans hanging out under a bridge minding their own business?
  7. Other than the one tensely shot sequence, why did Wolff’s inability to complete the BioRobotics job not affect him in a more sustained manner?

Autism in The Accountant 

There were a number of reviews that complained that the film tried to do too much by being a John Wick (2014) styled action-flick – slick action sequences, small/contained plot, with  a healthy dose of humour – while trying to push a public service announcement message about neurodiversity. Some claimed that the film failed to do this.

I actually beg to differ.

My ability to feel differently is in part, I think, from watching the film on a weekday afternoon, in an all but empty neighbourhood theatre. This means, I wasn’t swayed or influenced by audience laughter which most of the reviewers also pointed out seemed to occur at awkward moments in the film. Awkward moments that sometimes made it feel like audiences were being encouraged to laugh at Wolff’s expense.

The scene that often gets blamed for this is the awkward lunch break that Dana and Wolff share. Sitting in the dark, mostly by myself in a fairly quiet cinema, I actually found myself thinking that Affleck’s character was much less awkward than I expected him to be compared to Kendrick’s. In this scene,

  1. He neatly deflects Kendrick’s unintentionally accurate quip about how hard one has to hit a thermos in order to dent it by saying, “it’s just old” which is a surprisingly naturalistic explanation seeing as how he has been caught red-handed, sort of… I mean, I find it kind of remarkable that as an audience member I bought that explanation until it was revealed otherwise later in the film (sorry… *SPOILER*)
  2. He provides a surprisingly nuanced interpretation of the “Dogs Playing Poker” series of paintings that is actually pretty consistent with the scientific literature on Autism and art appreciation:
    • “Another distinctive trait one finds in some autistic children is a rare maturity of taste in art. Normal children have no time for more sophisticated art. Their taste is usually for the pretty picture, with kitschy rose pink and sky blue… Autistic children, on the other hand, can have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding, being able to distinguish between art and kitsch with great confidence. They may have a special understanding of works of art which are difficult even for many adults, for instance Romanesque sculpture or paintings by Rembrandt. Autistic individuals can judge accurately the events represented in the picture, as well as what lies behind them, including the character of the people represented and the mood that pervades a painting. Consider that many normal adults never reach this mature degree of art appreciation.”
      • Taken from Autism and Asperger Syndrome edited by Uta Frith, published in 1991 by Cambridge University Press
  3. All in all, the humour in the scene felt like it came more from Dana’s over-sharing than anything Wolff did or said

Instead the scenes in which I did find myself smiling at oftentimes came after moments of triumph for the character:

  1. The two times he proves his incredible military prowess to the farm couple
  2. That one time he nails John Lithgow ← This is not a spoiler. You KNEW John Lithgow was the villain the moment you saw his name on the starring list. I blame Raising Cain (1992) for this eternal impression I have of the guy…

And the scenes that dealt directly with how Wolff’s autism affected him were handled very somberly. Like the claustrophobic framing used in the scene where he sits down to eat alone (seen in the trailer), and quick cuts and lighting used to create the extreme tension in the scene where he deals with his inability to complete the BioRobotics contract.

Watching this film, unlike most reviewers who immediately sought to compare it to John Wick, I actually thought of Tropic Thunder (2008), this scene in particular:

And I suddenly realised how demeaning and presumptuous Hollywood films can be when it comes to making films about people with mental disorders, and what a fine line it is to walk to bring those stories to the screen in a respectful manner.

I guess it’s safe to say that this film made the right choice in running in the complete opposite direction of trying to imbue Wolff with any overtly lovable characteristics associated with his mental disorder for fear of looking patronising. Instead, it made a concerted effort for Wolff to appear wholly and completely normal or even super-human when he interacts with others in order to further its empowering message on neurodiversity.

At the end of the day, The Accountant was not the film I expected it to be but it wasn’t all that bad either. It had some good things to say about some important issues which it handled pretty conscientiously. It’s just unfortunate that its positive message was let down by some problematic story-telling.

The Conjuring 2: The Tension between Seeing, Not Seeing and Seeing Too Much

James Wan has done it again. The Conjuring 2 is a horror success and as far as I can tell the franchise is on an upward spiral. It’s got more or less the same formula with its episodic structure, the Warrens, the two intersecting cases and a family in peril. But this time, the plotting is tighter and the themes of family and familial love and support are more tightly woven into the plot structure with the conscientious use of doubling and parallels between the Warrens, the pre-credit case, the main case and even the ghosts.

I want to spend some time talking about how Wan plays with the tension between Seeing and Not Seeing through his use of jump cuts and long takes. While I’m sure he’s not the first horror director to do this, he does use these techniques very effectively.

The thing about jump cuts in horror where the camera doesn’t move and the frame remains completely still but the ghostly figures within it seem to cover incredible distances in the blink of an eye creates a sense where even if if you have your eye trained on something, there’s no way of seeing what is happening or piercing the veil into the other side, so to speak. It’s a helpless kind of fixed staring that you force yourself to do, thinking you can master the horror by seeing it but the camera work shows you unequivocally what an exercise in futility that is. So to me, these sort of jump cuts are set up with the intent of letting the viewer ‘see’ something only for them to realize that they still can’t, even if the camera work, the mise en scene/framing seems to be attempting to help the audience ‘see’ better.

On the other hand, the long-takes that do foreground the horror happening in real time whether the character and the audience is watching or not, ALSO hark back to how futile the use of sight in place of mastery is. I want to use two examples from The Conjuring 2, but I also don’t want to spoil it? So I’m gonna go with 2 clap-clap game sequences from The Conjuring (2013) instead.

In the sequence where the mother unintentionally plays hide-and-seek with the ghost, her vision is compromised but ours and the camera’s is not. We see her walk towards the cupboard that has opened on its own and through which two ghostly hands have reached out to draw her over to them with two resounding claps in the echoey, empty house. Trapped on the other side of the screen, all you can do as the audience is sort of curl up in your seat and hope nothing happens to her.

In the other sequence, where the camera pushes in on the mother’s terrified face as she’s trapped in the basement, back against the door, illuminated solely by the flickering match in her hand, the long take ends with two hands reaching out from the shadows behind her to clap twice right beside her face before the candle gets snuffed out. As a member of the audience, you know it’s going to happen, the music and the tension the director has ratcheted up in the scene all tell you it’s going to happen and you see it happening but you still can’t stop yourself from screaming.

(ok. I know. It’s a jump-scare but omg it was the best moment in the film I can’t not talk about it even if it’s a little out of point… I’m sorry)

So these long-takes seem to indicate how even if you could see the horror unfolding (which the jump cuts deny you), it’s completely, utterly and absolutely useless anyway. So both positions, Seeing and Not Seeing become equally terrifying to the point where you don’t know what to do with yourself. Now, that’s a good horror film.

The Conjuring 2 does something more with who gets to see that makes the film even more interesting and called to mind one of the elements that Ju-on (2002) did really well and got credited for when that film came out.

So this brings me to my last point about Seeing Too Much because both Conjuring films seem to break down at the climactic moment because the power of suggestion is set aside in order to show you the horror, to give it an actual visual representation. And this externalizing of the demon and giving it physical/visual form turns the the possession narrative suddenly into a monster narrative. I don’t understand why he does this but assuming there’s a reason, why doesn’t it work?

When horror is in the mind of the viewers it’s much more frightening than when it is given physical/visual form because what’s scary to one person may not be scary to another. Especially, when you have horrible, uncooperative, desensitized horror film fans like myself (I’m sorry! C’mon! My earliest film memory was watching Poltergeist (1982) on TV when I was three!).

As an example, the demon in Insidious (2010) looked like Darth Maul; and the Crooked Man in this film just looks like Jack Skellington dressed as the Pumpkin King from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to me. And the effect it produces is not so much horror but more, “Oh wow! That’s a cool monster design!” And an accompanying desire to see more of the monster. Not quite the right effect for a horror film I think.

Anyway, the way these films that Wan puts out with their fantastic build up that keep collapsing at the climactic moments got me thinking about how past monster movie directors got it right. And I came to the conclusion that this is why Body Horror as a genre is something that’s always fascinated me.

One of the major struggles early horror filmmakers struggled greatly with (before the boons of CGI came along), was the creation of a monster that did not look like a man in a suit. But with Body Horror, you completely sidestep this problem because the horror is the human body, in particular the defamiliarisation of the human body, the making strange of it.

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That’s why movie monsters like H.R. Giger’s designs for the aliens in the Alien franchise (1979 – 1997) have infected the dreams of so many. The recognizable bone structures like the ribcage and vertebrae found on the outside of an alien species, human fingers used as legs for the facehugger, not to mention the phantasmagorical glimpses of human genitalia infused into the design of these creatures.

Or what about John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) where every part of the human body from blood to skin to organs can be made monstrous with gaping mouths finding a home in a person’s thoracic cavity while a decapitated head sprouts spider legs to scurry away on?

Or why is it that even with it’s much weaker storylines the cenobites of from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser franchise (1987 – 2011) continue to fascinate and horrify us?

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And what about The Exorcist (1973), greatest possession film of all time? No visual/physical representation of the demon at all other than what we’re offered through the tortured body of poor unfortunate Regan.

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I think the simple explanation for why these monsters are effective horrific-inducing  monster designs is because they point out that the horror is not out there but it’s in here, inside us and with us all the time. And while our eyes are looking outward trying to guard against an external, encroaching, invading horror, we’ve left ourselves blind to the horrors residing within us, that potential for monstrosity that we all carry within us.

So here’s to hoping that James Wan might consider some body horror for a more successful monster design for his next horror film.

Ps. I recognize that a lot of this is wishful thinking because possession narratives are about invasive, encroaching, intruding horror that tries to defile the human vessel but hey! if The Exorcist could do it… maybe Wan will find a way too?